The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

9 thoughts on “The tree I’d be

  1. Fran, I am so connected to this idea of being a cypress tree. I live among baldcypress. One in my backyard is easily over 100 years old. They withstand the strongest hurricanes. They bend. They don’t break. The knees are beautiful sculptures. I wanted to come back to your post to find a poem here, but then I read your own poem standing tall and thin like a cypress tree. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Margaret – oh yes, of course – the teche! I would think it magnificent to live among the bald cypress. You’re a kindred spirit in so many ways. I so love your response and hope you’ll still write your cypress poem because I want to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, such beautiful thoughts you’ve expressed! I don’t know much about cypress trees, having lived all my life in Ohio, but your writing makes me want to know more about them. I know much more about maple trees and their “helicopters”…that’s what we called them, too. 🙂 ~JudyK

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Judy – I didn’t even know until I did a bit of research for this post that right here in North Carolina is the oldest known living bald cypress (“Methuselah”) – and that it’s one of the oldest living plants in North America. Utterly fascinating. But oh – weren’t the helicopters fun! I walked across a patch of them yesterday … today I think I may throw a handful of them into the air, as hard as I can. 🙂

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  3. This is wonderfully thoughtful. I love all the detail you include about the cypress – observations, science, memories, personal notes. Now I’m wondering, what tree would I be? And, as you point out, more importantly, why?

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    • It’s fun to think about, Amanda, and what gets me is why the cypress came to mind first – immediately on reading that question. The exploration of the idea was so interesting – and surprising! I am so glad you enjoyed.

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  4. Fran, my high school nickname was Tree – I’m 6’2″ tall – so I can honestly say I’ve given this question lots of thought. You are definitely a cypress! Beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Tori – that is tall, especially for a high school girl! It means you have PRESENCE, for sure. I hope the moniker was given with good nature and that you wore it with pride. Thank you for this comment and agreeing with my choosing cypress … although, as I said, it kind of chose me … and what fun it is exploring these connections.

      Like

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