Time, space, and trees that have birthdays

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Fri, 01/27/2012 - 01:45

We humans seem to become part of a landscape wherever we are planted, to wear it like a garment or a skin, to possess, and be possessed by the rocks and the trees of our places, and it is incredible to think that we cannot forever inhabit our land or our place.

My grandson, Max, was upset by moving to a new home. He focused all his feelings of loss and dislocation on the stand of trees in his old yard, and said, “I miss my forest.” This inspired the gift to him of a tree and the writing of A Tree for Max.

Max is like all of us who are rooted to a place. What if we were to move? Or die? Or if by some evil spell, the landscape itself should change. A hurricane, a blizzard, a flood, an earthquake, a tsunami, rebellion, war—all can devastate a place.

It is even harder to comprehend how our economics, reinforced by social and cultural customs, so well suited to earlier times, have created environmental change and global warming which threaten to devastate the planet which is our home.

Trees evoke deep cultural and personal depths, which informed my writing. Echoes of my childhood, years in Israel, literary and religious sayings, all surely influenced the writing. As did longing for my grandson, daughter, and son-in-law. And a desire to share with Max my love of nature, and begin his education in stewardship of the earth.

Trees are rooted in the earth, they do not move about. If we move, we must leave our trees behind. Can we survive without our trees? If the climate changes, the trees cannot move to a new place which has a suitable clime. Warmer winters will reduce or end the harvest of maple syrup. Apple trees need a certain number of days of cold. We humans have a hard enough time dealing with the changing seasons and have holidays and rituals to remind ourselves of the passage of time. How will we manage when the earth itself changes?

From our agricultural past, trees represent a source of food and security. A house becomes a secure refuge and homestead when surrounded by fruit-bearing trees. Peace is represented by the prophet as a promise that "...every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him." (Micah 4:4) A wise person is "like a tree planted beside streams of water." (Psalms 1:1) Traditionally, a tree is planted on the birth of a child. The reward of a good life of many years is to be like a tree that retains vigor into old age.

We do not easily let go of our places, and recall them in memory through the generations. My mother came from a small shtetl (village) called Dubrovna in Russia. She recalled the farm animals and the river and always wanted to live in sight of a river or the sea, and when she had no place for a garden, grew scallions from an onion in a dish of water on the kitchen windowsill. A photo recalls me as an infant on my father's shoulders, under a huge tree, on the Fenway in Boston. Tame New England woods were to me a source of mystery and adventure on family walks and overnight camping with Boy Scouts.

The New Year for the Trees, Rosh HaShana l’Elanot, is a Jewish festival timed to the ancient agricultural cycle of Israel. It is called Tu B’Shvat because it takes place on the 15th day of the month of Shvat. "Tu" stands for the letter Tet signifying "9" and Vav, "6". In Israel, Tu B’Shvat falls after most of the winter rains, and at the beginning of warmer weather. Farmers need the earth to be moist so they can plant, and the warmer days cause the sap to flow. This year, Tu B'Shvat begins at sunset on February 8. As warm as this winter has been, we are at least 2-3 months away from planting trees here in Peabody. In the northeast US, at least, Passover in April is a better time for planting. Max’s mother is named with the Hebrew word for tree, Elana, because she was born on the 18th of Shvat, just after Tu B’Shvat.

Jewish tradition forbids eating fruit from trees for three years after planting, and the fourth year crop was to be a tithe, so only in the fifth year could the farmer harvest and use the crop. (Leviticus 19:23-25) Experts today advise not to allow fruits to grow for 2-3 years after planting, in order to help the tree to develop.

When our family lived in Israel for over a decade, including a few months on a kibbutz, I was exposed to the agricultural seasons which were celebrated with national and religious holidays. My wife's father had been born in the north of Israel and he and his wife retired there. In family pilgrimages, we visited his relatives in a farming village close to Lake Kinneret; and their main crop was almonds. We lived in the hills of Jerusalem, overlooking the Jordan Valley, and observed almond trees blossoming in the spring. The contrast with the bare, desert landscape was striking. The trees dotting the hillside were covered with flowers, and surrounded by perfume, we watched the bees visiting the flowers.

Moving to Israel was an adventure, not without stress. Leaving Israel was, for each of us, painful.

When I learned that Max was having issues with his move to a new home, I thought perhaps planting a tree would give him a new focus. Yet, I had no idea how deeply he and his parents felt the loss of their home, how deeply rooted they were in that place, with those trees, with those experiences. A year later, they still lament the richness of their lives among the trees.

Somehow I settled on an apple tree for Max. And realized I knew nothing about growing and planting apple trees. About that time, a friend introduced me to the wonderful nearby orchard at Brooksby Farm, with apple trees as well as pear and peach trees. I learned when it would be safe to plant, and had to research the pollination question. Some varieties of apples self-pollinate, while others must be planted with complementary varieties for cross-pollination. I made up a short book for Max to go along with the tree. But I had become addicted to apple trees and ended up returning to photograph in the orchard many times over the course of a year. Apple trees have wonderful shapes sculpted by the farmers who prune and direct the branches to ensure good production and easy harvesting.

Of course, so many others have written about apple trees for children and now that A Tree for Max is complete, I have been seeing and appreciating what else has been published. The books fall into two main camps: illustrated narratives stressing the science and annual cycle; and stories that focus on a loving mutual relationship between person and tree. A Tree for Max combines both camps. Most of the action between tree and boy take place in the future. Grandfather Apple Tree imagines how he can teach Max about apple trees and life, and the potential role of the gifted apple tree in helping Max to grow.

Shel Silverstein's book, The Giving Tree, narrates the relationship between a boy and an apple tree that gives and gives. I am intrigued by Hubert and the Apple Tree by Bruno Hachler, Albrecht Rissler and Rosemary Lanning. It is a narrative running from childhood into old age for man and tree.

And I have started to notice literary works with trees. I am eager to read this one, an amazing book of essays, full of love of trees, words, mythology, and history. Mnemonic: A Book of Trees by Theresa Kishkan "Mnemonic" refers to an ancient speaker's device, to break up a presentation into several sections and to associate each section with a room in a house to guide recall. This reverberates in our use of "in the first place," "in the second place," and so on. Kishkan's places are symbolized by various species of tree which remind her of stages of her life. Kishkan notes that the Celtic alphabet was based on tree names, and quotes a poem by Aonghas MacNeil with this wonderful phrase: "A tree arose and spoke to me, a letter in her mouth." Based on a Phoenician alphabet, Hebrew and even English letters had other sources, but not trees, such as ox (aleph, a) and house (bet, b). Thus Tu (B'Shvat) is written with symbols that originally stood for "wheel" and "hook."

What kind of a world will we leave for Max and all the children? If we refuse to recognize the threat of global warming, and are paralyzed from taking any action because of the politics, we will not be able to prevent disaster. Yet experts claim that we have the science and technology that, if applied, could provide the world with clean energy, jobs, and preserve a home for mankind.

Not so long ago, our ancestors of many cultures had devised rules for living together and for respecting the environment. They made and followed rules for growing fruit trees, including the wisdom of not taking too much from the tree at an early age, and the need to pay taxes to support communal functions. We seem to be ruled today by an ideology that endorses selfishness and seeks to take from the environment without counting the costs.

In A Tree for Max, Grandfather Apple Tree, the King of the trees, all the trees of the forest, birds, and a dog worked together to get Max a tree. Can we reach back into our traditions and derive some new rules for responsible action? Can we possibly find a way to work together to save the earth for the trees—and for Max and all the children?

References and readings:

Moshe Sokolow on Tu B'Shvat and Arbor Day
Yair Goldreich, how geography, agriculture, and rainfall determined the date for Tu B'Shvat

Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution.
Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization http://www.earth-policy.org/books/pb4 (free download of the book)
Jeffrey Sachs, The Price of Civilization

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About A Tree for Max |
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