|My Oak Tree
||[May. 3rd, 2013|05:38 pm]
Right now, as I am writing this, I am within walking distance of the hospital where I was born in 1978. That being said, I have never felt like I was from Tepid City. My family’s original home that I lived in until I was 6 was in the hills north of here. We lived in a green house that my father and his brothers and brothers’ in law built together for our family. We were poor. My sister wore clothes my mother sewed for her and my parents often fed us with organic gardening and a little bit of antelope and deer hunted from the hills. Tepid City was the big city to me; full of cars and buildings. My eyes as a toddler were much more attuned to pine trees, boulders, high grasses and red ochred soil. |
Eventually my parents got sick of just-trying-harder to make ends meet and moved to New Mexico where the economy was booming and we were exposed to an array of cultural and aesthetic experiences that left their marks forever on all of us. Tepid City was never where I was from. My original place of origin was always in the hills where I would escape from my parents yard and much to their alarm run through the hills at a young age.
One constant, one tether to the state of South Dakota was always my grandparents’ house. We would drive up north, through Northern New Mexico, through Colorado, then Wyoming and finally east towards South Dakota. My grandparents’ house was so much in our minds our true destination that we would say we were going to grandma’s house before we would stop and think that it was in a small city in Western South Dakota. Even though this region of the US can be dry in the summers, it felt temperate and wet compared to the desert that I had become more and more adapted to. My grandparents spoiled us. My grandfather, descended from a mix of New England puritans and Native Americans married my German grandmother after meeting her in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. Grandfather kept a meticulous lawn, mowed and gardened and worked outside until he was the color of a penny, and would spoil me and my sisters. The house was air-conditioned, clean, peaceful, and smelled like cooking food. My grandfather is the one person responsible for my passion for natural history and my reverence for the natural world. And perhaps he saw I had some inherent natural affinity in me for nature, science, botany, zoology, and related subjects that he simply encouraged.
Among my life’s best memories was the day that I planted an oak tree with my grandfather. He had found 4 acorns and decided to try to plant them with me to see if anything would happen. Always realistic and level-headed, he told me that it was unlikely any would grow but we would see. To his surprise, one of the acorns actually did sprout, and to protect the tiny tree from deer, he built a small protective fence. He took me out to see it to declare, officially, that it had survived up to this point. Again he warned me that the tree might not survive. It grew in the northwest corner of that yard he took such obsessive care of. When I left South Dakota two years later, the small tree was growing, leafy and green. Every year I would come back and visit my tree and my mom or grandmother would take pictures of me standing next to it, as it seemed to grow at the same pace I did.
Over the years the oak tree and it’s continued existence became a source of anxiety for me. My grandmother passed away when I was a long haired juvenile delinquent with a police record. My grandfather remarried, sold the house, and moved to Alabama. There was talk through the years that perhaps we could speak to the new owners of the house and have the tree moved to a park or something. We of course never did this. I once wrote, in ages past when my writing was better and more frequent, that if that tree was ever cut down, or I ever came to know it had been cut down, my shin bones would splinter at the very same elevation that the tree was cut and I would fall to the ground myself and perhaps die. More than anything, I think I was resolved to in the back of my mind accept that new owners of a house might do anything with a young oak tree and that there was nothing I could do. Knowledge of it’s demise was the thing I wanted to avoid. Superstitiously I guess I believed that if I never found out about it the tree would always be growing. It would outpace me, of course, and be, to me, a personal axis mundi around which the cosmology of my life would always revolve.
I am writing this within walking distance of the hospital where I was born. You know, the thing about this place is that it teaches you a lesson contrary to the underlying principles of local conservative politics. This part of the United States teaches you that sometimes you can’t just try harder. You can’t just buck up, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and give it one more good effort. My parents lived in terrible poverty in that house they built in spite of it’s beautiful location. My dad discovered Albuquerque on a construction job when I was a kid. He took our family to live for a month in a motel while he worked construction at a mall store. Like many cities in the American southwest, Albuquerque experienced a boom in the 80’s and 90’s. Seeing economic opportunity and new housing developments popping up west of the river, my parents decided to pack up, sell their house, and move in the summer after my first year of school. My mom found a good teaching job, we lived in a nice house, and I was exposed to strong desert sunlight, perfectly dry sand, the smoky soulfulness of red chili that will always put me on that side of the debate, Hispanic women with black hair to their waist, adobe buildings, the sound of Spanish being spoken, arid mountains like something out of the old testament, and a sting from a red ant on my finger that hurt so much it made me think I couldn’t breathe. No other family on my father’s side ever moved out of Tepid City. When I was in 4th grade my mother and father decided they missed their families and we moved back for a year. Rather than a nice teaching job my mom struggled to find work as an aide. My dad struggled to find work and eventually got a job driving trucks. We again lived in terribly poverty and smarted from it. All it took for me, as a kid, was to be stung by a red ant once to never pick one up again. Nothing hurt like that. It was like you wanted to climb out of your own body to get away from it. Just-trying-harder in Western South Dakota is a kind of hurt that you want to climb out of your own flesh to get away from.
I am very close to the two year anniversary of my arrival here from an unfinished graduate program in a neighboring state. My back is blown out from a job related injury and I can’t get adequate care for it. I can’t earn enough money to pay back my student loans. I fight alongside hundreds of other people for retail and food service jobs. I live in terrible and impossible social isolation. My explanation for coming here is that, perhaps, after so many years wandering the vast expanses, living in sin, earning useless college degrees, and becoming an increasingly quiet, introverted person, is that I wanted to be someplace that felt like home. Right now, with that weight transferred down my spine like I am holding up a pair of dumbbells on a planet with impossibly high gravity with an iron spike being driven slowly between two of my sacral vertebrae, I think about picking up venomous ants and why I was smart enough as a kid to only make that mistake once.
In a city where I have a family history and a large extended family on my father’s side ( none of whom talk to me except to mumble some lessons about morality and religion and the rightness of the particular denomination their branch of the family attends ) I made a decision I thought I could never be capable of. I normally stay out of my grandparents’ neighborhood, and don’t revisit it or the house my family lived in during that year we moved back, and I have only seen the house in the hills once. But a few months ago I decided I was just going to do it. I followed an impulse.
And of course the new owners of the house had built a new garage in the back yard with a driveway connecting the northwest corner of the yard with the street out front. In the process of their paving my tree disappeared.
And you know I can’t blame the new owners. There were a great many trees in that back yard, and new owners would have no idea of an Oak Tree’s significance. The villain, here, I think was myself. I could have chosen to not look, to not know, and the tree would always in my mind be alive. It does make me wonder if there was in fact a synchronistic moment in my own life that marked the tree’s destruction. Could it have been the moment I decided to move back here and just-try-harder? The moment in graduate school when I was sick of being bullied by mentally ill professors while living in a month-to-month motel and working my ass off teaching a writing class to international students none of the faculty had the academic background or experience for? Was it the moment I realized I was going to have to file for bankruptcy? Did my back injury happen before or after I looked into that backyard? Which central pillar fell first, my spine or my oak tree? You know, the past two years swim together in my mind so much I don’t know. I think that’s a bad sign. Time is neither linear nor circular here, it’s fucking mashed together with life events rearranged into a mess like the carapace, limbs, and guts of the anatomy of a bug that’s been stepped on.
My grandfather passed into ancestry while I was at my worst as an adult, during a time of my own personal downfall in the year 2008. He is buried in the South, on the Gulf Coast, in the community where he spent his last decade with the woman he married after my grandmother died. I have never visited his grave because I don’t know if I could stand to. I don’t know if I could stand up straight after seeing his name on a headstone.
I wonder what happened to the physical remains of my tree. Did they burn it and send it quickly across the veil in purifying and cleansing flames? Was it at least mulched and thereby became nourishment for other plants and living things? Was it chopped up and sent to the landfill? I am entirely to blame for the fact that this speculation has taken up real-estate in my mind. I didn’t have to look. I could have resisted.
But I also believe that in the same way that people can pass into the land of the ancestors other living things like beloved animals can do the same. The taxidermy-preserved spirit bear that I couldn’t stand to look at above the fly fishing department at my previous job no doubt crossed into a misty forest guided by whatever gods rule over golden-furred bears and if something like this didn’t happen then I don’t know what use it is for the gods and goddesses to exist. And I don’t think it is much of a stretch to believe that great trees can do the same. The otherworld and its powers are always there, a millimeter away from our world.
These are good things to have faith in when a you want to climb out of your own flesh because of a red ant sting, when the untreated pain in your back from working a menial job makes you ball up your fists, when you have been beaten into jelly from two years of just-trying-harder. Maybe my tree grows taller in otherworld sunlight with a golden-furred bear beneath it. Maybe in its arboreal afterlife it becomes a place of shade for an unrepentant heathen from this side of the veil to visit and rest under for just a while, while drinking a cup of otherworld mead, and heal near-impossible wounds until it is time to step forward with ferocity and resolve.