We have planted scores and scores of trees on our land. When we bought the place, the first thing we did was to even up the periphery of scrub brush with a bulldozer, leaving a pristine and intimidating plateau of soil. It was a blank slate on which to write about my favorite subject. Trees!
First we built a safe house for our tools, a tufo block potting shed. It was our first attempt at a dry-stacked structure. Mortar cannot be used to build without a permit, so dry sand is used to level out the heavy bricks, and there are many of these structures dotting the countryside. Even after fifty years or more, many are still standing solidly. Now we could begin the first really big improvement : delineating the perimeter of the land with Arizona cypress. We dug the holes taking turns with the hoe, a total of about 900 of these the first year. As we had no irrigation water during the winter months, I had to haul water in plastic drums from the nearest public fountain to keep the tiny trees alive as the weather heated up. They are now, after twenty-five years, enormous and confident.
After these came others. Orange and tangerine, loquat, plum, peach, cherry, persimmon, filbert, some new olives to round out their numbers, and deciduous decorative trees as well as pines, eucalyptus and firs. I lost count somewhere along the way, and even so I am always on the lookout for a place where I can insert a new tree without causing the place to become claustrophobic. I love trees, and it shows, as the light inside our house fades and is blocked by foliage. Winter is our brightest season.
painting: “Treeline” oil on canvas, 2010
My younger son has always been intrigued with weapons, cutting tools either home-made, bought, or imaginary. These were used to lunge and feint, attacking leafy foe and liberally carving up chips of bark. He was impervious to my pleas to have mercy on the trees, and sword-slashes and nicks made by various blades would regularly appear at waist-level on their trunks. Accumulations of buds and leaves might be seen in less-visible areas of the yard, small ninja harvests. The trees around the house have cuts dating from when he was as little as three, and the scars have deepened and become permanent features of the trunks of the living things which continue to bear them with grim and silent tolerance. The bark swells and gathers itself in a hug around the wounds, and preserves the moment for future contemplation. Thick and pouting, abrupt to the touch, they are the essential statement of “little boy,” written in braille.
Our house is now equipped with a wood-burning fireplace for heat. We gave up using natural gas because it was so expensive, and now the house is rigged with what they call a “camino-caldaia” which pumps fireplace-heated water to all the radiators. It is a job keeping it stoked, but it works wonderfully. Our trees are providing a wealth of wood for the pile, as they lose limbs and have to be pruned. It is my hope that I can replace the wood burned with new growth, and somehow be accountable for the smoke we produce by providing a forest of filtering leaves.
Trees are truly a renewable resource, as long as there is enough water to get them through their formative years. It is incredible that a tree, when stressed, will shed its leaves not only to transpire less moisture, but to create a carpet to shade its own roots and conserve water. The leaves provide an enormous surface area that traps humidity and drips it into the roots below. Their roots will form a solid mat during the summer, and many times I have to hack flower pots free in the Autumn because roots have discovered them and anchored them to the ground. The story of our septic tank and roots is a chronicle of war, with many battles won and lost.
Each accidental lawnmower nick to a root will create a new tree. They are eternally hopeful. There can never be too many trees, and the noisy concert outside my window indicates that the birds agree.
painting: “New Owner” pastel on paper, 2010