USS Clueless - What a tree looks like

Stardate 20011226.2247

(On Screen): James Lileks writes about visiting his parents in Fargo and about the drive back home. His wife and baby daughter were sacked out, so he had solitude as he drove through the country of his childhood, absorbing the images.

Wife and child fell asleep after ten miles, leaving me to captain the vessel alone. No radio. No CD. Just the mute tick of the white lines below and the bleak dead scenery all around. I couldn't live without seeing this landscape once a year. White snow on black furrows; empty trees, drifts piled against the bones of summer fences. I was born to this, and I have to see it every year or something feels wrong.

There are words so basic that they may be among the earliest words we created back when language was a novelty. Words like water, food, mama, daddy, hungry, sleepy, sun, sky, light, dark. And one of those words is tree. Though they look different, nearly everywhere that humans have lived, trees are part of the life experience. So while I had to learn both the concept and word transistor, I think that I was born with the concept tree.

But what a tree looks like in detail; that may be learned. But once learned, I think it never leaves you. James describes trees in the winter and given that he calls them "empty trees" I assume it means they've lost their leaves. To him they look right; seeing them seemed to replenish his soul.

I grew up in Oregon, in an area which had once been a temperate rain forest. It is extremely fertile there, with plenty of rain, and the plants are lush and plentiful. And because it gets cold there (though not as cold as Minnesota) it favors conifers, which predominate. This is the home of the Douglas Fir, a tree which is routinely exceeded in size only by the Sequoia. Some fir trees live 2000 years, and they never die of old age. Death is always due to accident, disease or fire.

Most of the forest there is still old-growth, and much of it is pure Fir. The rest is a mix with a large amount of Fir. In different areas there are also Pines (especially lodgepole Pines). But the entire state is dominated by evergreens. So I grew up with the fact that trees pretty much looked the same all year long. The only time that no tree in a forest had any greenery on it was when all the trees were dead, usually because they had been killed by a forest fire.

Sure, we also had deciduous trees. There were birches and aspens and other stuff like that, and we had a lot of maples. But they could never really compete with the conifers, which dominated all the forests.

Which is why during the 12 years I lived in Massachusetts, I never really got used to the woods there. There are a few pine trees but most of what is there is deciduous. For about three weeks in the autumn, the trees would look spectacular.

And then all the leaves would fall, and for five months the forest would look as if it had been hit by Agent Orange. To these eyes it was ugly; it seemed like a vision from Hell. Real trees don't look like that unless they've died! I really hated the winters in Massachusetts.

Oddly enough, now that I live in Southern California, I'm back to something more like what I'm used to. Strange, isn't it? But the only major tree native to this area is something called a Torrey Pine. The rest of the trees we have here are imported, but mostly they've been imported from arid areas. Eucalyptus trees, in particular, don't drop their leaves yearly.

There are some which do, but they've got the schedule wrong. They are programmed to think that leaves are superfluous when the days get short. Actually, around here that's when the rains come. Winter is the growing season here. Were it not for human irrigation, all those trees would be dead. But the evergreen Eucalyptus trees, and the evergreen Torrey Pines; those are real trees, because they stay green all year, like trees should.

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