what trees feel like

Photo by Rob Mulally on Unsplash

What Trees Feel Like

“What Trees Feel Like” explores humans’ relationship with nature and asks how we tell stories about ourselves. It sheds light on how we center ourselves in our narratives and allow other important aspects to fade into the background.

This is what a tree feels like.

Everything is sticky: the bark, the pinecones, even your hands. You are maybe three years old, playing beneath the large pine tree outside your sister’s middle school. Your mom sits in the car parked on the road as you two wait for the final bell that will release the flow of students.

The large pine stands in the lawn of the school, a tower overlooking the sidewalk. Its dark green branches stick out around it forming rows of branches thick with green needles — like each branch splitting into thousands of tinier branches. Thick brown cones litter the ground, each one bigger than your fist. The ground underneath the tree is dusty, an oasis of brown from the discarded needles in the desert of the green lawn.

The bark is rough under your hands as you explore the world under the tree. The branches jut out above your head, creating the perfect little spot under the tree for you. It’s cool under the branches. The air smells of earth. You marvel at how the branches are the perfect height for you to stand under; the lowest branch grows just an inch above your head. You fail to realize that, as a child, you are in fact the perfect height to fit under the tree. The tree did not grow that way for you. Nature can be kind but not for the sake of us. It simply is.

As you run around the tree, diving to the ground, crawling about, and being prickled by the dead pine needles and the cones waiting to burst forth with life, you realize your hands are sticky. The realization is sudden. It stops you. They have been sticky for a while now, but in your playful bliss, you hadn’t noticed. It was from when you first ran beneath the tree and roughly hugged the large trunk. Its sap got onto your hands. You sniff your hands in wonder. They smell of the tree, of the earthy, unique pine smell. A smell so natural against the backdrop of the town. Everything about the tree stands out against the backdrop of the town; trees were there long before the buildings and will be there long after. Yet, you forget this as the buildings seem more natural to you. As if the trees grew later, to give room for you to play away from the humanmade structures, instead of the reality. Instead of us building the structures to escape nature, to avoid the trees. The school bell rings, and your mother calls you back to the car. Your sister will soon be there, and it’ll be time to head home for an afternoon snack.

You will see the same tree years later when you start middle school. As you walk out the doors and head to the street where your mother is parked in the same spot as she was almost ten years ago, you might even remember playing under the tree. But you only remember it once or twice. Mostly, the trees fade into the background of your life. To be seen daily, but not noticed. For you have bigger things to occupy your time than the trees. They might be your earliest experiences with the school, but they are but the starting place. The large pine fades into the backdrop of life.

Four years after middle school and you have mostly forgotten the trees. To be fair, you have also forgotten many other things about your time in middle school. That cannot be avoided. You are so focused on your life that you have forgotten where you started all those years ago in the cove of the tree, grown specially for you. The tree probably forgot you as well, as you no longer fit beneath it nor care to try. But four years after middle school, and suddenly you remember the tree. You’re out for a walk your senior year of high school. You pass the old dentist office, and suddenly you see your middle school. Memories flood back to you. Then you see the tree out front. That large pine seems smaller now. But no, you are just larger. Years will do that. You might remember playing beneath that tree, but only for a moment. Your attention is drawn elsewhere and you remember other memories from the years past, and the pine fades into the backdrop of your life once more.

Photo by Aaron Burden from Pexels

A tree can feel like this, too.

It’s rough. The bark scratches your skin as you try to climb it. The sun beats down on you, and the hot air surrounding you offers no relief.

Now, years later, you are six, give or take several years, and a couple dozen miles away from the middle school. It’s all the same really. Your cousins are over at your house. You hardly ever see them, but once or twice a summer they come and visit for a few days, maybe a week. Sometimes just a few hours.

They are there now, in your backyard. Between the barn and your driveway is an old maple, older than you anyways. Older than your father, but maybe not his father who you never met. It’s good for climbing. The trunk is massive, much thicker than you. About four feet up it splits like a Y into two large branches that rise up into the air before splitting again. Its green leaves seem to sag in clumps on the branches high above your head, and any slight gust of wind sends seeds twirling down around you like a thousand tiny helicopters crash landing. The size should baffle you; even once it splits in two at the Y, either trunk is larger around than you are. Standing at its base, you cannot see the top branches. But perhaps you have grown used to the size. For when you first saw the tree, it was much larger — or no, you were much smaller. So now, years later as you try to climb it, the tree is not so big, for you have grown.

 Your older cousin pulls himself up and crouches in the Y of the tree, several feet from the ground. You try to pull yourself up but cannot lift yourself into the crook. As your cousin climbs higher, you get upset. He climbs so easily, yet you cannot even make it off the ground. You must be a failure. You are unable to see that your cousin is two years older and much taller. All your child’s mind can know is success or failure, not what goes into them. Instead, you try not to cry as your hands scrap against the bark, not quite hard enough to draw blood but hard enough that they turn white. The tree does not see your failure. It does not see your cousin’s success either. The older-than-you maple might be aware of you or perhaps not. Either way, it does not care of your failures. It only sees its own success of growing taller, closer to the sun, absorbing slightly more light, stretching its branches and roots out, just a little more. But its success or failure is not measured in the same way as you and your cousin’s. The maple’s is the success of years, of decades, not a single summer afternoon. At one point, for whatever reason, the maple grew that Y in its trunk, decades ago. It decided that it was the way towards success and has had it ever since. Someday it might be its failure. The Y at the base of its trunk finally cracking in half, sending the tree toppling over in two directions under the weight that was finally too much. But for now, it is success. The tree grows its branches out in a Y, and your cousin climbs it. Only you have not yet grown enough, but be patient. That day will come. The trees are patient in their success.

 Your mother calls you to the driveway. She has red, white, and blue popsicles. The sugary coolness instantly takes your mind off your failure to climb the tree. Instead you realize how the heat seems to push down on you. You suck the popsicle, and everything seems alright. Everything is cool and sweet. Success will come later, for now you need to grow your roots a little more.

You are slightly older now. The same cousins are over, or it might be a different one, or maybe not a cousin at all but a childhood friend that you can’t quite remember the name of. You’re in the backyard this time. There are two more maple trees evenly spaced between your house and the field sixty feet away. They loom over the yard and provide the cool shade of childhood summer. You are playing ninja. You are the green one; green is your favorite color. You must rescue the princess from the assassins. Hurry, they are getting away. The other child jumps to the side of the rushing train. You stop. He can’t do that; he’d fall off. But no, he tells you that ninjas had small knives in their gloves so they could stick to stuff. Of course they did! You are the green one again. You leap to one of the large oaks and stick to its large warped trunk with the blades in your gloves. Its bark is rough and cracked, but cool from the shade cast by its branches. You press your hands against the grooves in its bark as you cling to it. You breathe in its woody scent for a moment, as the other kid runs off to save the princess.

As you play, the maples tower over you. They become the backdrop to you fighting the evil assassins. You are only vaguely aware that they are there, using them every once in a while to jump against or duck behind, but mostly forgetting them. Perhaps they too are dimly aware of you playing beneath their shade. Your feet sending out vibrations as you run around the trunk that are felt deep in the ground by the roots. Your playful shouts rustling the leaves on the branches above. Your hand, hitting the thick grooves of the bark. Your play is the backdrop of their success. As they spread out their roots and branches, you too find a spot to grow.

You see these three maples and all the other trees surrounding your house almost every day of your life. You play under them. The campfire sizzles and cracks as it burns the fallen sticks you gathered at sunset in preparation. You sit against the trunk and pretend to read, but instead simply take comfort in feeling something so solid and unmovable pushing against you. Or rather, you push against it. The tree grows, you chose to rest against its trunk. The tree grows not for you. You sat on the trampoline under the far tree with your high school friends sharing the gossip that was so important because it meant nothing. As your friends exchange a laugh, you flick a leaf at your best friend who falls backwards with a soft bounce. You leave for college and spend weeks, months even, without seeing these sentinels of wood guarding your home. But you come back eventually. You will always know their shade, their smell, their feel.

"Pine Tree and Red House, Winter City," by Lawren Harris
“Pine Tree and Red House, Winter City,” by Lawren Harris

This is also what trees feel like.

Cold. The kind of cold that does not so much take your breath away as simply turns it to white puffs. Also, magical. There is something in the air. You can feel it. Something more than the everyday.

You are young. Christmas is still new and exciting to you. One morning your father brings down several large red rubber-made boxes from the attic. That day is spent opening each box with excitement to figure out what’s inside. You unpack them with your sisters and mother and then put up the Christmas decorations. Each nativity, Santa, cardboard snowman, stocking, and other knickknack finds its home among the shelves and bookcases. You even find a wreath. It is a plastic ring vaguely resembling the real branches of a pine tree. To you, the plastic reminds you more of your toy army-men than of anything living. You fail to notice the real wood of the other decorations. The Santa is carved from a block of wood with its features painted on. The nativity is made of wood, twigs really, with real hay. To you, the fake wreath is the most tree-like thing there. For wood is not natural, not when it is made into other. Instead, the artificial plastic mimicry is far more natural. You finish putting up the decorations without giving it much thought.

Then, it is nighttime. Your father gets one of his tractors, an orange one, and attaches two blue plastic sleds to it with some hay-bail twine. He slowly pulls you and your sister as your mom walks beside you. You make your way down the road and into the field. As you go, it begins to snow. The fat white flakes fall from the night sky and land all around you. You soon enter the small forest of pine trees that your father helped plant as a child. You look up, and between the still green branches you see the snow falling in the most magical way. It feels like the dead of night, but it was probably only the darkness of winter evenings. In that moment, everything is calm and peaceful. It is the magic of winter, of the forest, of the night. The silence and peace wash over you and that is what you feel: calm and otherworldly.

You make your way deep into the forest — it’s only maybe a hundred feet thick, but you go deeper than that in the memory — and find a patch of young pines. Your dad stops the tractor and you and your sister hop off the sleds. With your parent’s guidance, you find the perfect tree. You dad grabs the small handsaw he brought and begins to work at its bass. After a minute he offers you the saw. You take it uncertainly and move it back and forth at the base of the tree. The tree’s low branches tickle your face as you crouch down at its base. You smell the saw dust overwhelm the sterile smell of snow. After a minute, ages in childhood time, you grow tired of sawing. Your father takes the saw and hands it to your sister. She tires in the same way as you, leaving most of the work for your dad.

You do not remember the rest. Presumably your father finished, loaded the tree onto the sleds, and you walked home. Then you set up the tree and put up the ornaments and lights before going to bed. You never question why you put a tree in your house. It seems perfectly normal. Trees are everywhere so why not in your house. Once again, you learn to ignore the trees, until they become part of the background, just another part of the story. It’s not a tree anymore. It’s a Christmas decoration.

You remember another night. Maybe the same Christmas, maybe a different one. Your mother is making homemade gingerbread houses out of an old cast iron mold. The smell of the cookies in the oven, the lights of the decorated tree in an otherwise dark living room casting strange shadows, and the sound of a distant TV playing some movie. You have no way of knowing if this is the same Christmas. But in your memory, every childhood Christmas is the same. They are laced together by the magical wonder that went into every one until they are all one big moment in your head.

Later, you walk through those woods of pines. It is summer. The air is hot and heavy, but you find it tolerable beneath the cool shade of the woods. The air is still, and the dead leaves crunch as if it was still fall. The forest is much smaller now. It’s the same size really, maybe even a few trees larger. But no. To your memories, it is much smaller. It’s a nice day for a walk and the woods are even nicer. 

Even later, you come home from college. You go to the pines. Crouching, you dig through the dusty ground and pick up several of the spikey cones. A bird moves through the branches above, causing the branches to rustle on a still day. Your father helped plant these trees. Now you have some of the pinecones. Later, when you have a house, if you ever do, you can plant pine trees just as your father did with his father. For that is what these trees are: a continuation. They tie you back to your childhood, to every time you went out and saw them, every Christmas, every walk in the woods. By planting a tree, you are recreating those memories. Nothing more. The tree is irrelevant in this matter for it is no longer a tree, not to you anyways, but a story.

What trees feel like.

They can feel strangely artificial. Rows of identical pine trees no bigger than a foot tall stand in cheap plastic pots, each one with exactly one red teardrop ornament and one green one. They stand among the rows of other products at an aisle end display. Rows of brightly colored shampoo line the shelfs behind them, doing a better job at drawing the eye than the trees ever could. Something so natural as a tree, taken and made into another identical product to be sold in the most humanmade of places. No longer natural but not wholly artificial either. This is what humanity has strived for.

You are a sophomore in college and are home for winter break. You and your mother went out for dinner and stopped at Walgreens on the way home. The tiny Christmas trees catch your eye as you walk in. They do not look well: there branches are wilting, their needles more yellow than green, and their dirt is far too dry. Try as they might, a convenience store is not a place for plants to thrive. You decide to get one. You have a couple succulents and an herb already; your dorm room is quite the garden. You name your new plant Pseu (pronounced like Sue), short for pseudo tree. You cannot equate the little foot-high plant to what you think a tree should be. But it really is. It is a tropical pine, a breed of tree. Given the time, it will grow, spreading its branches and roots in success until it becomes as tall as any tree you can imagine. But for now, it is only a foot high and close to death. You hurry her into the shock of the cold night and into the car, worried about what the cold winter will do to her. She is fine. In fact, you still have Pseu today, on a stand a couple feet away from where you sit writing this.

Nearly overwhelming warmth. The sense of love and belonging. The satisfying taste of mediocre dorm food that is too satisfying after a long day of binge-watching a TV show with your three best friends. You do not know how the topic of trees came up. That’s not really how talking with friends work. But you talk about trees. You mention Pseu, back in your dorm room. You half-joke about Pseu being a friend to you, not just a plant. Your friends accept this weirdness, accept you. Your friends give you the freedom, the encouragement to be you. One friend mentions that trees actually do have friends. Something about their roots touching. He recommends a book. The conversation shifts again, and trees are forgotten.

The smooth feeling of a paper beneath your hands. The unique smell of a new book. Half a year later you finally read the book your friend told you about. He probably does not even remember the conversation. But you did. You find out all sorts of things about trees. That they are social. That they share food and water with each other. That they talk to each other. That they can remember. You become enchanted by them. By the world you never knew about.

Because this is what trees feel like. They feel like you realizing that the world is bigger than you. That things that you take for granted every day are more than what you think. They feel like a seed being planted as a kid, a seed of love, of joy and appreciation, and it being nurtured throughout your life. Until it bursts out and you realize. You realize that you know what trees feel like because they feel like you. They feel like every moment of your life because they are part of it. They have always been there and always will. Trees feel like love.

chamomile harrison

Chamomile Harrison is an emerging young author currently working on her double BS in creative writing and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Her work has previously been published in Future Reflections and The Muse. She will be starting her career in non profit advocacy work once she graduates in 2021.

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