My relationship with trees started young. I grew up in northern Wisconsin, outside much of the time, with hardwoods and conifers that were endlessly entertaining, changing colors, elegant in snow and glittering in the sun after rain and ice. They dropped lovely toys like helicopters and pinecones and leaves for leaping in and pressing. And they smelled so good. I still think of trees as gentle, good listeners, always ready to play or just envelope you in shade and comfort, like a sibling.
But I wondered what trees were, exactly. Alive? Definitely. They moved, unlike my other fascination, rocks and fossils. Animals? No way. Trees seemed human to me, with torsos, arms, hands and fingers. Still, there were odd disconnects. Like no faces or feet. All they could do was stand there mute, which seemed a serious flaw in their model. When I first saw The Wizard of Oz on TV, I was enchanted by the trees in the Enchanted Forest. My trees had eyes and talked too, I realized, whispering through their hands on breezy days and screaming during storms. But how had I not realized it? They had to grow lips! Yes, for a brief, never-before-disclosed period in my life, I searched for lips on trees. Much later the Ents captured another piece of my heart.
I evolved into a tomboy who just wanted to climb. To be precise, I wanted to be up high and away. I could assess tree climbability in a minute, circling for the access point, open to a rope. I would bring a book up to a crook in one of my favorite trees and read up there, surveying the neighborhood. Life was grand. Mostly. Our city, like many across America, had planted beautiful arching elms as canopy trees to line its streets. When Dutch Elm Disease wiped them out, it was devastating. They were my trees. To this day, the whine of a tree cutting saw makes me sick to my stomach. Please plant another. And vary your native species.
In high school I received an unexpected gift. The guidance counselor at my all-girls Catholic school, Sister Kathryn Kitslaar, asked about a long September weekend in the northern forests. Two days off from school courtesy of Trees for Tomorrow. How she knew that I loved being outdoors with trees is beyond me. I am a guidance counselor, she said, affronted. I spent that weekend with other Wisconsin girls at a CCC-built camp learning that trees are so much more than just pretty things. My most salient memory is of a DNR or US Forest Service employee (female) having us lie silent and still in the middle of what seemed an impossibly tall conifer forest, eyes closed, for ten minutes. It was hard but she didn’t let up. I can travel back there even now. The sun-dappled wind in the needles, the freshening scent, the rustling forest critters, the knowledge that we were special guests of these sentinels. The Girl Scouts had told me repeatedly, but in those ten minutes it settled on me like a second skin. We are all called to be caretakers of this.