The Boy Who Named the Trees

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the delightful Molly Each.

I am the boy who named the trees.

I did it when I was four or five, before I went off to kindergarten. Those were my peak verbalization years. I was an inquisitive kid with an expansive vocabulary, and I talked a lot to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of anybodys out in our neck of the woods. Dad went to work. Mom spent most of the day in the vegetable garden. She usually kept my brother Levi by her side, which didn’t make a lot of difference because he was too little to talk with anyway. My closest agemate lived half a mile away and I wouldn’t meet him until we were old enough for school. We had two dogs, but Phoebe was short-tempered and Gerda was incredibly stupid, even to a five year old. I tried making up some imaginary friends, but I didn’t quite get the idea that I had to make them do things in order for the relationship to blossom. I just sat back and waited for the imaginary people to entertain me and was sadly disappointed.

And so I talked to the trees. Years later, as a grown-up, I read an Annie Proulx story that ended with the line, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” I was good at that, making my own fun. I had learned from Sesame Street that everything has a name. I had also learned that in nature some things are alive and some things are not alive. Trees were alive. They were also immobile, which made them better candidates for lasting friendship than the various bugs and toads I caught. Yes, the trees would be my friends, and they would need to have names. And not just species names. I knew most of those – birch, spruce, cedar, etc. – thanks to my mom’s unflagging love of horticulture, but those names were so impersonal. They referred to all trees of the same type not only on our land, but all over the world. If I wanted these trees to be my friends, I needed to give them individual monikers to show them that I cared.

The first tree to get a name was Big Bart, the massive cottonwood between the shed and the house. Bart had to be first, because he was so obviously the captain of the trees. He was just the biggest tree you could hope for, at least in westernWisconsin. Sixty-odd feet tall, eight feet in diameter, rough grey bark, lofty branches that would make good sized trees themselves: if there was such a thing as tree porn, Big Bart would be a surefire centerfold. When Bart shed his cotton-esque seeds in the fall they coated the ground like an early September snowfall. He had a similarly impressive cousin out in the pasture, Big Bruce, but I never established the same rapport with wild trees as I had with the domesticated ones in our yard. I loved Bart, but it was that odd combination of love and fear usually reserved for benevolent authority figures, so we remained more acquaintances than friends.

Three-heads was much more benign. Three-heads was technically two, or possibly three, different box elder trees that had grown together at the base, with two distinct trunks sprouting off at obtuse angles. The larger trunk forked off again about six feet up, thus providing the third head. Box elders are generally sort of a nuisance tree, with their dull, ugly bark and those irritating, ground-littering seed pods we kids used to call helicopters, because of the way they twirled to the ground. Three-heads, however, was far from a nuisance. His visibility from both the house and garden made him the perfect playpen from my parents’ perspective. My dad hung my tire swing from one of Three-heads’ lower branches and I whiled away many an hour drifting back and forth in that swing with a stack of Chip N’ Dale comic books. When we were a bit older, Levi and I nailed an old ice cream bucket to Three-heads’ largest trunk and played one-on-one hoops with a Koosh ball. Three-heads was our own home entertainment system and, as such, the only box elder I ever graced with a name.

A little ways down the gentle slope from the house, near the fence line dividing the yard from the pasture, stood a grove of three walnut trees, rising tall and black and strong above their runtier brethren. Walnuts were another nuisance on the land. They cropped up everywhere and emitted toxins from their roots that killed off any more desirable would-be neighboring species. They cluttered the ground with their obnoxious fruit. In the spring, the big green walnuts made crossing the yard akin to walking across a golf driving range with longer grass. In late summer, the outer casings rotted away to an unpleasantly textured black slime that was impossible to get out of clothing. In the fall the outer shells were exposed and they became nasty, sharp-edged obstacles that would carve up a bare foot just like broken glass. Still, I admired the stately trio of walnuts enough to deem them nameworthy. I must have also deemed them somewhat comical, as I dubbed them Wilma, Fred and Barney (Apologies to Betty Rubble, but there were only three trees).

I was not on friendly terms with every tree in the yard. There were a few whose angry visages set me to whimpering. My chief adversary was Scarface, a tough, mid-sized walnut who lived along the north fence line separating us from Jim Kowitz’s cornfield. Scarface had been gnarled irreparably by several strands of barbed wire that bit into his trunk unforgivingly. The disfigurement was more than I could bear. I turned my head and hummed to myself every time I walked past, hoping to avoid eye contact with the horrid creature. In later years, I came to feel sorry for poor Scarface. I realized he was a misunderstood monster, like Frankenstein’s creature, and that the scars were not his fault at all. My mother, incidentally, has told me she was mildly concerned that I named a tree after a movie I should certainly never have heard of at that age. I have no idea where the name came from. Perhaps one of my cartoon shows did a parody, or maybe PBS ran the old Paul Muni movie one morning when I was unsupervised.

I do know where my other nemesis, Bruce Banner, got his handle, though exactly why I decided to name a twisty, scary oak tree after the Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is a mystery to me. Maybe it was because the tree looked relatively harmless in the summer months, its true nature cloaked by layers of leaves. Once the seasons changed, however, Bruce Banner was transformed into a frightening behemoth, all pointy limbs and severe angles. I’m not certain why this particular tree’s nudity affected me more than any other’s, but I suspect I drew a connection between Bruce Banner and those angry trees in The Wizard of Oz who threw apples at Dorothy. So much trauma stemming from that film.

My little brother swears to this day that I used to wander around the yard talking to the trees. This is simply not true. I’ll admit I regarded them as friends, but I knew full well that tree friends are different from human friends. We had a relationship based more on recognition than communication, and that worked just fine for both parties. That might sound odd, but I could point to any number of married couples who operate on the same principle.

I don’t want to read too much into it, but tree naming might have been a key contributor to my development as a storyteller. Even if I didn’t establish an actual narrative for each tree’s life, I was starting to build worlds of my own. I was toying with the early stages of personification and teaching myself untold lessons about human personality. The surprising power of that original vision is evident not only in the fact that I remember so many of my old friends in such vivid detail, but also that my parents to this day refer to all of “my” trees by my given names. While I appreciate the resonance, I have been embarrassed on more than one occasion when friends visiting from a more urban setting have inquired about the identity of this “Three-heads” my mother keeps referring to. I have learned that the most dignified approach is to simply smile politely and explain quietly that they’ll have to bear with my mother, as she’s gone a little bit crazy.

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