Once there was a girl tree that grew on the edge of the forest. Every day during the spring and summer she would stretch her branches to the sky to catch the first life-giving rays of sun as they poured over the mountains, continuing on to light up the steeple of a little church in the valley. She was glad when the breezes moved her branches, first swaying one way, then the other, then back to the beginning. She was happy to shade the forest plants and every autumn was very generous with her leaves. “Growing and giving, growing and giving” she would say. “Sun and wind, leaf and bird, I grow to live and I live to give.” The tree was even tolerant of the silly squirrels that rushed about on her limbs, sometimes head up, sometimes head down, clinging with their skritching claws, forgetting where they had buried the nuts, why they buried nuts, and what nuts were.
Years passed, and the tree grew a bit sleepy, forgetting to stretch her limbs quite so high to catch the early morning rays. In fact, the sun seemed to shine less brightly, and the air, once so vitalizing now seemed stinky and dusty. Could it have something to do with the new streets and houses that were creeping up the valley toward the forest? The sun came up as usual, but a shadow was cast by a large building out east of the church, a building with six sides and a big clock that gave out a terrible, loud “bong” at precisely five o’clock, morning and night. One summer a bulldozer came and built a road right up next to the forest. Eventually green signs on the road told people which way to go, but it was not a nice green like leaves. “My leaves are clogged,” the tree said. Still, in the quiet of a Sunday evening, when the traffic died down, she sang softly and a little sadly, “Sun and wind, leaf and bird, I grow to live and I live to give.”
Now the cars zipped along by day and night and even on Sundays. The little church was made into a historical landmark, and people came to live inside the forest where once there had been only mulch, worms, mushrooms and the shy forest plants. Everyone needed a driveway and a lawn, so the forest fled back and away, leaving behind a few larger trees that were now called “yard trees.” A white frame house was built behind the tree, and a cement wall was constructed between her trunk and the freeway. Everyone swept up leaves and took them away in the autumn, while the dirt cried out in dismay. The grass did not smell very healthy. The tree did not feel like pushing her toes out anymore, and she stopped rooting in. Somebody grew a sunflower on the corner, but birds did not come to eat its seeds, and eventually the sunflower fell over on its face. The stem went all gray and mushy. A little boy came from the house to try to stand the sunflower back up, but when he went away a slight wind came and it slumped down again.
If there were any squirrels the tree could not feel them, for its bark was very thick. One night there was a heavy rain and the tree could no longer hold up its biggest limb, so the limb came crashing down onto the side of the freeway. Men and women arrived with orange signs and chainsaws and rakes. They directed the traffic and removed the wood and the leaves, which were a hazard. They did not look up at the old tree, and they did not bother her. They took the leaves and the wood to the dump, and then they opened their lunch boxes and had some coffee and a snack. A police car went by and then a fire engine. Somebody wondered where the fire was. When the clock tower bonged, the men and women left. The tree had a big gash where the limb had been, and as the evening approached she formed tears of golden resin that dropped down onto the concrete below.
That night a strange thing happened. Because of the pain of the torn limb, the tree could not sleep. Or perhaps she slept very lightly, because dreams walked in and out of her branches, and she watched them as if from a distance. In one dream, a young tree was waving, waving at the forest’s edge, beckoning to the birds and the squirrels and the forest plants to come, come live with her, come be a part of her life. For an instant she thought she heard a bird singing, but then she fell into a cloud of pain, gray clouds moving in and out of her branches, breaking apart again to reveal another dream. A very sad man with a stubbly beard and torn pants sat down under her trunk, lifting a square bottle time and time again, wiping his mouth on his hand. His wristwatch was dirty, and it would not tick. Eventually he laid himself out on the sidewalk, summoning only enough willpower to stretch out his arm and sweep a few fallen leaves into a little pile to pillow his head. They were damp. They were all he had.
The tree cried for the man, and then she looked up toward the upstairs window of the white frame house where another dream was unfolding. A little boy put his elbows on the windowsill and his head out the window. He was framed by yellow light from a bedside lamp. It was late in the evening and he was supposed to be asleep, but instead he was longing for something. It was a heavy feeling in his heart, but he did not know exactly what he wanted. Then he smiled very slightly as a song came to him from somewhere, even as the freeway cars zoomed by, their headlights leaving fleeting traces of window-shaped light on the walls inside. He sang the song very sweetly out into the night, while his parents snored in their bedroom. The song went “Sun and wind, leaf and bird, I grow to live and I live to give.”
In another dream the trees of the forest came walking, walking back from the hills, calling out to all trees everywhere to come and join the fun, to come for a walk in the moonlight. They walked over the houses and they flattened primroses in pots. Then they trampled down the street signs. The fences at the edge of the freeway bulged, cracked and gave way. Our tree was filled with delight, and she began to glow with all the warm sunlight that she had stored during her long life. The other trees noticed. They stopped and watched her. As she rose up and glowed brighter, they hooted like owls, and they shook all their leaves in a giant round of applause. Now new branches sprouted spontaneously from her wound, thin-barked branches that whipped back and forth with young life. Then her toes woke up. “Enough sleeping!” she said. She smiled, yawned and lifted her giant roots as if they were petticoats. Then she walked out into the middle of the freeway, and pausing there she extended one pointed root out and down, like a maiden testing the temperature of bath water before getting in. She put that root down in the middle of the freeway, piercing through the hard surface, through the crushed rock below, and down, down to a place where the forest soil was buried. Then she concentrated for a bit, and pretty soon she put out thousands of healthy runners, radiating in all directions through the layer of wonderful old black dirt. After another pause, as if catching her breath, she sent them back up, up toward the light, all at once, in many, many places. There was a great upheaval and the runners pushed through the cement everywhere, and in everyone’s yard, making new trees that branched out and unfurled small leaves, medium leaves, and finally giant hand-shaped leaves that fluttered in the morning wind.
A squirrel dropped onto the windowsill for a moment, chattered and was gone before the little boy was able to get his eyes fully open. He crawled out of bed and looked out the window. The drunk was rolling over and pulling himself up out of a huge pile of leaves. The man looked down at his trousers, and then looked up at the utterly bare branches of the old tree. He shook his head, and a few leaves floated down from his caked hair and lodged briefly on his shoulder. He would have to go find a cup of coffee, and maybe a place to stay. He brushed off the leaves and stumbled away. The boy looked down at the pile of leaves that covered the sidewalk, the lawn, the potted primroses and even climbed nearly halfway up the cement wall that protected the house from the freeway. “Wow.” The little boy said. The pile looked jumpable, and he wanted to get out there before his parents got up. He pulled on his pants; then he pulled on a pair of black underwear over his pants, finishing off the outfit with a black tee shirt, worn inside out and backwards. “I am Batman,” he said. Scampering down the steps, he went out barefoot into the lawn. He hesitated for a moment, and it felt like something heavy went flying up off of his heart, up through the dead branches of the tree, disappearing into the sky. Then he shouted “Wheee,” and he jumped right into the middle of the leaves.