One of my favorite parts of my rest has been going on long walks through the old neighborhoods just a couple blocks away from my apartment. These neighborhoods are only a few decades old, of course, since something being “old” is very different in most modern US cities than in most other places in the world, but that means they all have one of my favorite features of older US neighborhoods. Their streets make very little sense. They’re full of curves, winding bends, long lanes with no outlets, and massive old trees. It makes it very easy to get somewhat lost as you walk, since you don’t always find a cross street where you expect one and either have to walk on in hopes of finding an outlet or connection further down the line, or turn around and retrace your steps. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour or two on a nice, windy afternoon in the fall.
My favorite part of these walks is the old trees. Most recent US neighborhoods have a tendency to cut down all the trees in the area, develop the land, and then plant new trees as houses are built and filled. They even frequently use trees that aren’t meant to grow very large, staying a certain size and shape that keeps them away from the houses and their leaves way from the gutters and drains of the property. Old neighborhoods either used trees that can grow large enough to be full-sized specimens or worked around them. Even in these neighborhoods that have been around for sixty or more years have trees that have easily been around for longer still. Given that I’ve lived in apartments for the last decade of my life, typically managed by companies that would rather remove things than maintain them (a process I’ve watched as my current apartment complex has turned from a cozy little neighborhood of buildings to a barren, almost tree-less expanse with a gardener who thinks that trimming plants down for the winter means running them over with a lawnmower), I’ve missed being around trees.
I’ve always felt an affinity for trees. They’re huge, enduring, easily forgotten, and they take a lifetime of care (or at least a lifetime of not being actively harmed) to flourish enough that they become the thing that people imagine in their heads when someone says the word “tree.” As a large, enduring, and often-ignored person, I feel a certain amount of attachment to another living thing that most people expect will always be there despite the fact that you actually need to care for trees a bit if you want them to continue to survive (as evidenced by all the dead and dying ash trees I see everywhere). You can’t just ignore them and expect a tree that’s struggling to get better on its own. It needs help. Trees might seem mighty, unyielding, and enduring beyond the span of all of humanity, but they’re surprisingly fragile and just as disrupted by humanity’s actions as every other part of the natural world.
I mean, the word “tree” is just a convenient descriptor that groups a collection of things that, on the surface, seem similar. Trees are actually a wide variety of wildly disparate plants that pretty much just have a few evolutionary traits in common. If you look at some of them, they seem as different as plants on the ground seem, with various forms, different styles of branching, different types of seeds, different propagation methods, and vastly different forms when you look past the fact that they all have wooden trunks in common. Seriously, look at a bunch of different trees and ignore their trunks. They start to look incredibly different at that point, when you see the way they branch out, spread, grow, and deal with their own weight. When you look at them that way, the only thing they have in common is being tall. And, you know, being made of wood.
One of the main reasons I have an affinity for trees is that I grew up next to a forest. In a house full of other children and parents who all demanded something from me, going into the woods was the only time I ever really got to be alone. I had to be careful, of course. I couldn’t show signs of dirt or injury since that meant I’d get in trouble or not be allowed to go off on my own anymore. Which is why I never really climbed trees. I wasn’t really scared of getting hurt or falling, I was scared of the consequences of returning home with evidence that I’d gone deeper into the woods than I was supposed to. Still, it was nice to be around them. To be in the woods with only trees and the occasional bird or squirrel nearby. I learned to love the sound of the wind in the leaves and branches of trees as the only noise breaking my carefully horded silence.
Walking through these neighborhoods reminds me of those times. Of that peace. It’s difficult to find a forest like the one I grew up in, big enough that I could walk for hours but with enough footpaths through it that I could always find my way back without an issue. Something dense enough to forget that I was surrounded by suburbs but not so big that I was ever really at risk when I went walking. Something full of life but largely empty of people. I might not be able to escape the suburbs or the sounds of the city, but a windy enough day will drown out the sounds of cars, highways, and people when it whips through the tops of these ancient, massive trees. It will only last a moment, but that’s enough for me. That’s all I really need these days.