Embodied Earth 3: Urban Tree
Essay, Catherine Black, Nov 09, 2006 Today I said goodbye to my only friend. We grew up on this island, a strip of sparse grass surrounded by the asphalt river. We were not born here, but planted side by side by an aging public works employee after we awoke from the soil in a nursery in some faraway part of the city. I remember his tired, tan face beneath the blue workman’s cap, and the way his calloused hands felt on my still-tender limbs. He was not unkind, but worked blindly, on autopilot. He must have planted thousands of others like us in similar strips of grass surrounded by asphalt or concrete across this sprawling city. He was quick and efficient, and in the blink of an eye my world was transformed from the quiet, orderly rows of the greenhouse to the battery of noise and fumes on this avenue that has become my home.
At least I was not alone. My companion came with me from the greenhouse and we are from the same family. In the early days, we were shocked at the harshness of the city. It soon became clear that the busy streets roaring around us were not made for living things to thrive in, but for transporting the building blocks of urban life on thousands of automobile wheels that whizzed by us each day. There is so much commotion it makes you dizzy, not to mention the fact that the air is thick with fumes that intensify in toxicity over the course of the day until you can barely breathe.
We discovered early on that the best way to cope with this asphalt river and the metal hulls that hurtled on it was to focus on the sky above us. At least the sky moved at a speed more familiar to us, and we felt connected to it in a way we could never be with the cold concrete around us. Sometimes the clouds would drift along so slowly that we could almost lose ourselves in another type of time: a vast, open flow that extends far back into the memory of the world, before things got so crowded, loud and accelerated. Of course the sun, the rain, and the freshest air, all the things that nourished us, came from the sky. So we looked above us, and tried to ignore the black clouds that enveloped us whenever a large truck sped by, or the clumps of aluminum cans and plastic wrappings that accumulated around us until another city worker came by to sweep them up.
We were connected, however tenuously, to the ancient cycles of life that whisper from deep inside the earth, and this gave us great comfort. Each winter the air grew cold and grey and our leaves would wither and blow away on gusts of wind blowing up from the south. A strange solitude would envelop us as we grew quieter, more still, and more concentrated beneath the silence of the sky. Then in the spring eager green buds would appear on our branches and unfurl into new leaves that the sunlight shone through in the mornings.
One day I realized that one of the humans was looking at them, my fresh leaves, from the backseat of a car that was stuck in morning traffic. She was a young girl, with a round, clear face, and I felt that for a few moments she could actually see me, see the life and the spirit of the earth in me, even through the glass window of the car. This feeling of being recognized gave me an indescribable happiness, and I felt a flush of pride for the loveliness of my spring growth. Perhaps she sensed this, because she smiled, just as the car moved forward and her round face disappeared from view. After that I paid more attention to the humans. Although most of them remained enclosed within the metal and glass of their cars, never noticing us standing there on the island, every now and then one would look up and see a gust of wind shaking our branches, or the sun illuminating them in a pleasant way. They would see us, just as we saw them, and those moments of recognition were worth the long waits, because they made us feel like we were there for a reason.
One time I saw an old man with glasses looking intently at me, but an expression of sadness filled his face, and it seemed that instead of relief at seeing a splash of green amidst the metal and concrete, he understood the daily struggle we had grown so used to– the strain of living exposed and exhausted by the sheets of noise, smog and ugliness around us. That almost apologetic look he gave me made me think that there was more to life than what we knew; that this human knew more about what we lacked than we ourselves did. This made me sadder than all the trash thrown at our feet, the suffocating air slowly poisoning us, the unyielding concrete that cramped our roots, holding us back from the promise and solace of deeper, richer soil.
It made me sadder than anything ever had— until today, when they came with a large machine that pulled my companion from the tiny patch of barren ground that had sustained her all these years and poured yet more cement into the gaping hole where some of her roots still hung exposed and amputated. Then, they stuck a metal pole into the cement with a sign for motorists and left me, condemned to watch the asphalt river alone until the day when I can return to the earth’s dark, wild womb and be born again.