Once in a lodge in a forest a day’s drive from where I live in the great metropolis of Bostonia, where the hobgoblins, trolls, and grandmother-eating wolves had long since been scared away and only the mosquitoes lingered to protect the trees, I read about the era not long ago when the eastern white pine trees grew so tall you’d have to crane your neck and arch your back to try to see their crowns no matter what distance you were away.
I was so impressed I thought to myself, “Self,” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see one of these giant, neck-craning, back-arching eastern white pines?” I lived in the East, after all. But sadly, the author continued, the tallest of the troop were logged for ships’ masts and now lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, rest in peace, and those that were left were shadows of their former awesomeness. Though I could not travel back in time, I cogitated on this ex-wonder of the world on my mental trapeze, and a funny thing happened. While swinging to and fro in the dark of my mind and trying to conjure fantasy into reality, on a hot summer afternoon I found myself staring at a map of a forest close to home (the Hapgood Wright Forest in Concord, MA, but don’t all of you visit at once) and could scarcely believe my eyes. Just 15 minutes down the trail, an “X” marked a spot for “Old Growth Pine.” Hold your trapezes! I looked around to see if I was seeing things, because I don’t know when I’ve ever been happier, more excited, and more can-you-believe-it dumbfounded to see an “X” in my life.
In just 15 minutes, my own feet, courtesy of my bipedal ancestors tiptoeing out of the trees to the savannahs of Africa, would transport me through the forest in front of me to see this eye-catching, eyebrow-raising giant from the past. Isn’t life grand?
I have seen skies so full of stars that the entire dome above me seemed to sparkle, and I have seen fields so full of fireflies that I thought the stars had come down to Earth. But, I kid you not, when the 15 minutes were up and my evolution-loving feet had dutifully moseyed me down the trail and I stood in front of my bonafide fantasy, this sky-craving behemoth caused my eyes to twinkle. Wonder of wonders! I was seeing the tree of trees. I looked up. I leaned in close. I looked down. From buttressed roots to flared out crown, everything about it was a wonder: layers of filo-pastry bark broken up into oblong plates like hot dog buns or even baguettes from the City of Light; the stupendousness of the trunk that took more than two of me to hug; the neck-craning height that was so great I wondered if there was an enchanted forest of strange and wonderful beings in its faraway crown.
Without a doubt, most marvelous was the pure, unadulterated soundlessness of it all, like a big fat moon rising through the evening. It just stood there like it had all the time in the world, like it had nowhere better to be, like it always had, and, by gosh, it was proud of that. I walked around the colossus, first one way, then the other, like a monk around Mount Kailash in old Tibet, trying to take it all in. Here was the largest tree I’d ever seen in a forest and here I was in front of it. Life was grand. Trees were grand. Large white pines were the grandest. So grand, in fact, was its jaw-dropping presence that when I was done with my circumambulating, my silent neck-craning and my general admiring of the very treeness of it, and had to return to my treeless abode in the city, a strange feeling came over me. Perhaps due to the one-of-a-kind stature of the tree, I felt I couldn’t leave without asking for permission. Such was the effect the tree had on me.
“Good Sir-Ma’am,” I thought I might say, not wanting to guess at its gender, “the mosquitoes have started to bite and my tiny mind cannot fathom any more of your grandness, may I … ” and I would let my voice trail off because truthfully I was tongue-tied, for I was sure it was absurd to make such a request from one so small to another so grand and would it not be denied, or worse, ignored anyway? Who knows what trees think as we pass by with our water bottles and thought bubbles?
I realized then that in my oh-so-brief encounter with this arboreal monarch, I had not just vaulted over the awesome feeling of wonder and the wonderful feeling of awe — both splendid reasons for sauntering into nature — but had whole-heartedly and head-over-heelsly fallen in love with it. And now, with reluctance, I had to tear myself away from its alluring presence. So rather than ask permission, which required words I didn’t have, I put my hand on the trunk of the tree, because I thought to myself, “Self, what does one do when one doesn’t know what to do?” and that’s the thing that felt right, so that’s what I did. For one grand moment, our solitudes were joined, and that felt good, as if, then and there, I had adopted the tree, or the tree adopted me.
And, there and then, I whispered a promise to return, because how could I not?
Back on the trail, I climbed back on my mental trapeze and, as I pondered trees, grandness, and grand trees, I swung between lamenting how diminished the forests I knew were, as if they were full of children and teenagers, but missing the adults and senior citizens that carry the maturity and sagacity of a life well-lived, and feeling gratitude that someone, somewhen thought “Hey, let’s let these trees grow wild and see what happens?” — and happen it did. Did they know how inspirational, how necessary and vital the wild is for the well-being of both our reality and our imaginations, not to mention how wild the wild can be? That in wildness, as a certain Mr. H. D. Thoreau, Concord’s indubitably influential cogitator and tree-hugger, said, is the very preservation of the world. And I swung even higher into the idea that perhaps we had not loved our forests enough, merely taken them for granted, and that if we could love the forests for the trees — adopt them into our hearts — not only could we protect them for the people who depended on them, glimpse their resident critters small or large, breathe their pure air and encourage and applaud their innate ability to gulp excess carbon dioxide out of that same life-giving air, we could grow old with them, like my adopted tree and me. And one day our children and grandchildren could see trees so wondrous and grand that their very eyes would twinkle like stars. And then who knows what other wonderful things could happen?•