In communion with trees

When you were young did you have a special tree? I did. Maybe you still do, and together, you and the tree continue making stories. Living here in Maine, it is easy to love the landscape. The rocky shoreline runs for some 3,000 miles through nooks and crannies of inlets, harbors and channels— its goodness is immense. If it were not for the trees that continually look over its shoulder, the shoreline would be left a lonely orphan.

Eons ago, glacial migration cut a swath through Maine, moving granite and depositing soil for seedlings to take hold and grow, giving us the “uninterrupted forest” we have here today. The pine — white, red, and jack — are here, but their numbers are sparse when compared to their conifer brethren. But that’s OK. A tree is a tree is a tree. Right? Well, not exactly. The tree most abundant by volume here is red spruce, while the balsam fir is the most numerous species. After the pines, there are maple, beech and birch, which according to the Maine Forest Service are the most common forest-type group in Maine.

I grew up in a neighborhood with just a few trees. In my backyard there was a large locust tree. I can remember during summer months listening to the cicadas sing, thinking the sounds emanated from that very tree. The tree anchored the yard and my boyhood thoughts and still does, even though the tree and I are no longer there. Across the street from my house was where the really great trees were. An abundance of all types, shapes and sizes, a congregation of trees and green goodness could be found in the parkway. The numerous willow trees growing next to the creek were my childhood trees. With their strong flowing branches perfect for swinging on or zigzagging through in a game of chase, this is the tree I think of today whenever I am near a running stream.

Then there is the bramble of deciduous trees sprinkled throughout the park. These are the glamour trees, the trees that are pretty in the summer but beautiful during the autumn months. These are the trees that make even a teenager stop and say, “Wow.” The woody area or, as they say here in Maine, the puckerbrush section of the park is where we would ride our sleds in winter, down through the snarl of trees, alders, bushes and rocks. Whoever came up with this idea was crazy and yet brilliant. We loved this “danger path” through the unknown, coming out at the bottom torn to shreds, but with a grin that reached from the park to New Jersey. We were young, what did we know?

Before we made the permanent move to Maine, very large oak trees dotted our property. There were eight of them when we arrived, seven of them still there when we left. These huge trees, old in age, large in girth, watched over our daily lives then and are still there today. The leaves they would drop in the fall, well, lets just say, I know there are leaves probably still there from when we moved in 30 years ago.

Photo by Aaron Burden

In the fall, the weekends were devoted to those oak trees, their leaves and the forever chore of raking. We would rake the leaves from the yard into the street, forming large piles where we would burn them. Those weekends, when the entire block chose to do this, turned the neighborhood into what looked like a war zone. And to this day, nobody is quite sure who won — the trees, I believe.

Growing up, our kids loved to read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In a city park where my wife and I would take our children for walks and feed the ducks, there was a large maple tree. Its trunk would require all four of us to join hands to circle it. In the fall, it was ablaze with color, and I remember always saying, “This is my tree.” We all found and had that special tree which we would return to on every visit to the park. I have not been back there in a long time and wonder if the tree is still there, and would it remember me?

Here in Starboard, there are no ancestral oak trees or ancient maple, but there are plenty of spruce trees, a few pines and mingled in some maple and birch. On the property stands one lone tamarack, also called hackmatack. This tree is the only conifer that drops its needles in winter. It marks the very spot at which our property begins.

Set back deep in the woods is an enormous pine. This particular tree is a white pine. A friend pointed that out to me when we were exploring the terrain. The bunched needles give it away —count the needles: if three, red; if five, white. I am in awe of this tree every time I visit; I contemplate the history of the area around it as it developed over time and grew from seed to sapling, this great great-grandfather to the other trees dwarfed by its expanse, its strength, its goodness. “This is my tree,” I say to myself, also remembering that old maple from years ago.

Trees are special to me, no matter how old I am or where I live. There’s a certain something I feel when in their presence, a true kinship. I believe that that certain “something” is a silent layer of life that is shared between all living things. Where this idea came from, or when, I do not know. But I feel it, and I know others feel the same way I do about trees. Thoreau believed trees have hearts, and he also believed that they provide a balm for the soul when he said, “ I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Van Gogh has been quoted saying, “In trees, I see expression and soul.”

And lastly, from the book that started a love of trees for my children, is the opening line, “Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy.” Trees do love, and when I am in their midst I am surely in communion with them, and believe I am better for it.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.