Saturday, November 14, 2009

Trees Are People, Too

Illustration by Julia Yum

In 1981, Barbara Walters interviewed actress Katharine Hepburn, and they discussed what sort of person might want to become a tree.
Hepburn: I’m a very strong…I’ve become a, sort of, you know, thing…
Walters: What?
Hepburn: I don’t know what. You know, a tree, or something.
Walters: What kind of a tree are you, if you think you’re a tree?
Hepburn: Oh, I’d like, everybody would like to be an oak tree. That’s very strong and very pretty.

Miss Hepburn wasn’t the first woman with ambitions of becoming a tree. Daphne, the river god Peneus’ daughter, begged her father to turn her into a tree after the god Apollo went bonkers over her and chased her madly.

A wild child, opposed to love and marriage, Daphne felt nothing for the god of music, light and truth. She fled, her slender limbs bare in the breeze, her fluttering dress blown back, her hair streaming as she ran—and, as is the way with such things—in her flight she looked more enchanting than ever.

“And then,” writes the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, “she was at the river, swift Peneus, and called, ‘Help, father, help! If mystic power dwells in your waters, change me and destroy my baleful beauty that has pleased too well.’”
Peneus took pity and Daphne’s wish was granted. Slowly, and in poetic detail, she became a tree.

“Scarce had she made her prayer when through her limbs a dragging languor spread, her tender bosom was wrapped in thin smooth bark, her slender arms were changed to branches and her hair to leaves; her feet but now so swift were anchored fast in numb stiff roots, her face had became the crown of a green tree; all that remained of Daphne was her shining loveliness.”

And yet Apollo loved her still. He wrapped his arms around her trunk and felt her beating heart beneath the bark. “My bride,” he said, “since you can never be, at least, sweet laurel, you shall be my tree.”

After a romance like that, you can see the appeal of becoming a tree. I thought I’d give it a try, with a four-step plan:

1) Assume the Tree Pose.

It’s a rare feeling to wake up alone in a cold and sunny place. Today, I will commune with the trees here in this ancient Catskills resort where I am on a yoga retreat. Now that the Jewish standup comedians have departed and the ancient vacation camps are reinventing themselves as upscale weekend escapes for stressed New Yorkers, the Catskills have become the place to go for luxury boutique hotels, spa services and kundalini breathing.

It’s mid-October, there’s a chill in this room, and I’ve got my socks on in bed. I’m waiting for Julia, my friend and yoga teacher, to knock on my door with a breakfast tray of oatmeal and coffee. Outside my cabin window smoke rises from the little lake, Lake Cynthia, named after Julia’s mother. I’ve brought a tree branch into my room and put it in a clear glass vase. Willow?

I came to the Sunny Oaks resort once before, two years ago, when the guest staying in the cabin next to mine was a 103-year-old horticulturalist named Eddie. One day, Eddie took me on a nature walk and told me the name of every wild plant growing around Lake Cynthia.

Now, I don’t want to know what has become of Eddie. I want to believe he lives forever. But Julia bursts my bubble when she mentions in passing that Eddie died at age 104. I don’t ask why or how. I prefer to believe that a loving god has turned him into a tree, and that Eddie can now be found among a stand of maple trees on Lake Cynthia’s shore. Old-growth sugar maple stands can live as long as 300 to 400 years.

“Autumn is a good time for the Tree Pose,” Julia says during our morning yoga class. “Choose a tree outside the window to focus on as you cultivate a sense of rootedness in your core.”

The Tree Pose, or Vrksasana, is one of my favorite asanas. The famous yogi B.K.S. Iyengar explains in his book Light on Yoga that the pose involves bending the leg at the knee and placing the right heel at the root of the thigh. While resting the foot on the thigh, one then joins palms and raises the arms straight over the head.

Tree Pose is a favorite of many yogis and yoginis because, let’s face it, it looks good. It looks very yoga-ish, the sort of pose that often appears pictured in yoga magazines and yoga retreat brochures. But in his terse description of the pose’s effects, Mr. Iyengar has only this to say: “The pose tones the leg muscles and gives one a sense of balance and poise.”

But then, trees don’t usually receive much attention, do they? They’re just there. Solitary, rooted and still. Silent witnesses.

2) Watch an Old Movie on TV.

One Sunday afternoon I watch Marilyn Monroe’s last film, 1961’s The Misfits, with screenplay by her ex, Arthur Miller, and see tons of tree references.

Eli Wallach in the role of Guido, a simple guy who likes to scratch, throw stones and lament his dear dead wife, announces: “She stood by me one hundred percent, uncomplaining as a tree.”


Then later at a house party, Marilyn Monroe as the ultra-sensitive divorcee Roslyn Taber drunkenly runs off into the night, does a little improvisational dance number, then throws her arms around a tree and starts sobbing.

Also: Clark Gable as the aging love interest Guy Langland says, in a coded reference to the tree-ness of trees, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing is to stand still.”

3) Adopt Some Trees.

When it comes to suffering at the hands of man, trees are even more helpless than animals. They need adopting. Climate change, pollution and destruction of the rain forest have made our planet’s tree situation, well, you know, totally shitty and depressing not to say hopeless.

But at least here in NYC, tree huggers can join groups like Trees New York and MillionTreesNYC in their mission to increase the city’s tree canopy cover.
The Parks Department also plants street trees, free of charge, on sidewalks in front of homes, apartment buildings and businesses in all five boroughs. In order to request a free street tree, all you have to do is dial 311 and ask to submit a forestry request. (Or click here to request a tree online.)

Please go do it now. I’ll wait……
OK, thanks.

When a bizarre tornado blew down my Brooklyn street a couple years ago, leaving a number of destroyed trees fallen in its path, some neighbors and I phoned 311, not really expecting anything to happen. But a year later, in the spring, MillionTreesNYC planted two new trees in front of our apartment building, with tags attached telling us the basics of how to care for our adopted babies:

*Water each young tree 15-20 gallons once a week between May and October.
*Carefully loosen the top 2-3 inches of soil to help water and air reach the roots.
*Spread mulch.
*Clean up litter thrown on top of baby trees’ patch of ground by obnoxious neighbors.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll have figured out by now that I adopted the baby trees before I planned to actually become a tree. But for the sake of telling a story using a four-bullet-point format, I’ve compressed the information and, basically, lied.

4) Become a Tree for Burning Man Decom.

I attend a Burning Man Decompression festival in October. Having spent a week in September with thousands of other people in the Black Rock Desert, the Burners aren’t ready to leave the magic behind. They gather together in cities nationwide to celebrate their days on the playa with AfterBurn reports and Decom festivals, and I join them at the Brooklyn Decom.

Full disclosure: I didn’t attend Burning Man, but I have a number of friends who did, and I love their stories of the struggle to stay hydrated and keep one’s head while all about are losing theirs to drugs, flames, deafening vibrations and desert sandstorms.

According to the Burning Man website’s essay What is Decompression?, “Before the playa dust has completely settled and our heads have stopped spinning, many of us gather in the months after Burning Man to ‘decompress’ by taking one more communal plunge into the depths of what we found so affirming and memorable at Burning Man.

I go to Floyd Bennett Field in the wilds of Canarsie, the craziest reunion I’ve ever attended, with art, performances, theme camps, techno music and hundreds of beautiful party people.

A lot of people are dressed as pirates, furry animals and horned gods with gold-flecked faces. I am the only tree.

I wear the green felt Borsalino hat my grandma gave me years ago, decorated with vine leaves I’ve snipped from a neighbor’s fence. I wind orange maple garlands from the dollar shop around my green jacket and a necklace of Swedish ivy around my neck. My trunk and roots are brown tights and brown leather boots. VoilĂ : I’m a tree.

As the night begins, I wander around and spot a face-painting studio. A man in a white fur hat and his assistant discuss my concept and go to work on a painstaking process that involves selecting two stencils and carefully masking them with tape, mixing paints, applying the stencils to my skin and creating two identical, feathery green-and-orange leaves that trace the lines of my cheekbones. “You’re doing God’s work,” I tell them before wandering off again.

Every now and then, I stand on the Decom dance floor, or sit on the sidelines, a solitary and silent witness, watching the human swirl pulsing around me. Human beings are almost insanely active. What’s the point? What’s so great about constant motion?
I talk about trees to a man named Geronimo who’s been to Burning Man nine years in a row. We stand on the black tarmac of Floyd Bennett Field and look out into the cold and windy night at a couple of trees outlined against the sky.

“When I got back from the desert this year,” Geronimo says, “I saw trees as flat, two-dimensional objects. They were unreal, like art objects. It took me awhile after I got back to New York to see them as three dimensional again.”

We look some more at the fully rounded trees, illuminated by street lights and dropping wet leaves on the tarmac. I tell Geronimo about how I’ve adopted two trees. “You should name them,” he says.

My sister Barb told me about a tree that has stood kitty corner from her house for years. Every fall, she sees it daily from her window and watches as the leaves change color. She also likes the trees in a public wood that we used to visit as children, and she has introduced my niece and nephew to them. “I love trees,” she says. “I have relationships with certain trees, especially trees I’ve known for years. They’re like people.”