Of trees, transformations, and a visitation

Populus tremuloides, Rocky Mountain front by Kodak, 1981

Memories from my past seeped back into me as I pictured Richard Powers’ character Nicholas Hoel view photos documenting a chestnut tree’s daily transformation over years as if a flip book. I set down The Overstory, and remembered. Back to a brilliant fall forty years ago in Missoula, Montana: me, a freshman, introduced to Biology 101 by a man who shouted his love for living things, fiercely advocating our responsibility to protect the natural world around us. Dr. Sheridan came from a different planet than my high school biology teacher, a man who left me only with bored memories of DNA puzzles, creating my, then false certainty, that never would I enroll in more than the number of science credits required to graduate college. It was the same year I concluded, after completing a creative writing course taught by William Kittredge, just how difficult it was to write descriptive short stories, and that, perhaps, I wasn’t yet ready to share those amassing inside of me.

Acer sp., Missoula University District, 1979.

Back then on those almost-mountain-crisp, blue-skied fall afternoons, I rode my bike to my self-designed project to document autumn change within Missoula maple trees. Genus Acer, species with common names Norway, Silver, and Rocky Mountain. Maple trees that comprised nearly 40 percent of Missoula trees, more than what is considered a healthy mix today for a diverse urban forest plan. I was ignorant of that, then, as I biked to each tree, photo and log-documenting visible changes each week during the term. It wasn’t homework: I could hardly wait for the next week and occasionally over my remaining years in Missoula, from time to time, felt compelled to check back in on these tree friends.

But it was later that spring when I experienced an event similar to that shared by Powers’ character Olivia Vandergriff. All these years later I remember the moment clearly, which caused me to halt mid-stride as I hustled from my Craig Hall dorm to class in the Science Complex, now a declared biology major. It was what I might decipher to be a visitation. From something I could not before imagine or explain. I stopped, stunned, as I peered to the top of a massive coniferous fir, through stilted, not-very-warm sunshine. Suddenly I got it! As if in an animated explanation by invisible spirits, I saw the sophisticated process at work. Each step of photosynthesis, the inner working of photoblasts and ATP, the movement of nutrients and water from the roots by xylem, and sugars and nutrients throughout the tree by phloem. By God! I got it! I remember looking around me as if every other person should too be experiencing this epiphany moment.

Although some may find Richard Powers’ story too slow-moving, for me, it is a fine antidote to the obsessive seduction of checking and rechecking, now a week past my own book launch, and a few days prior to my launch party. Why do I look at Amazon ranking when I prefer people who choose to read my book acquire it from a local bookstore or library? And while I too may choose a “page turner” when I desire immediate escape from my life, those are usually not the books I remember months or years later. I realize now how silly I was as a fourth grader one summer to enroll in a speed-reading class, as if to travel through all those books I wanted to read even faster. No, The Overstory requires time to ponder, admire the structure, imagery and metaphors rising from each sentence. Time to be first disappointed as characters Nicolas Hoel and Mimi Ma disappear early in the book, only to revel when they appear later in the story line, connected coincidentally as people find themselves in real life. People who have something to learn from or share with each other, as do Ernest, Annie, Amelia and Sarah from my own Beyond the Ripples. Moments later, I replace the bookmark and set the book aside. I close my eyes, and return to my own brilliant memories of shimmering aspen near the Gibson reservoir of the Rocky Mountain Front, golden maples in Missoula’s University District, and firs towering throughout Montana, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond.

Dede, May 1972, cheap camera, poor focus, favorite tree.

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