685: Trees at Night
685: Trees at Night
I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.
Here’s a real question for you, do you have a favorite tree? Or do you have a tree that you remember really well from a moment in your life? I asked myself this question last spring and suddenly, accidentally, ended up writing a 11,000-word essay about trees. So be careful with this question, but also maybe don’t be careful with this question because you know what I can’t get enough of…trees!
Yesterday, our last day in my home valley, my husband and I went to the Jack London Saloon in Glen Ellen. This is where we had a small gathering the night before our wedding five years ago. A favorite bar of ours, as unpretentious as they come, full of locals, it’s been around since the early 1900’s. It has a huge patio that’s shaded by oaks and alders and even on warm summer days, it’s cool enough to sit outside in the shade.
I love this spot for numerous reasons, but the best part about it is that it’s right where two creeks come together, the Calabazas Creek emptying into the Sonoma Creek. When I was younger we’d try to inner tube down the shallow trickle of water during the early summer and…we’d never get very far, but we loved it. And last night, we sat on the creek and toasted to our twelve years of being together. As we did, an egret fished for minnows and we watched as it patiently stalked the current in the dappled light of the goldenest of a golden hour.
As we watched, you couldn’t help but also notice the trees around the creekbed that were full of birds nesting and plucking moths out of the air. Everything felt alive. The tree nearest to where I sat was an alder tree, with its white bark and notched green leaves. The alder tends to live in damp soil and has the ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air by growing in symbiosis with bacteria. All this to say, an alder is a very cool tree.
And I guess this is who I am now, a person who says, “An alder is a very cool tree.” As the sun started to go down the light changed on the alder trees, I was struck by the fact that I’ve known some of those trees my whole life. And that some of these trees survived the fire in 2017. The floods of 2012 and 2021. All these signs of the climate crisis. And still they grow, they keep growing.
I don’t know if it was the occasion or the fact that it was the last night in my hometown, but that one alder tree felt important.
Today’s poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson honors the importance of trees. And how even in our modern lives, a tree can demand our attention.
Trees at Night
by Helene Johnson
Slim Sentinels Stretching lacy arms About a slumbrous moon; Black quivering Silhouettes, Tremulous, Stencilled on the petal Of a bluebell; Ink sputtered On a robin’s breast; The jagged rent Of mountains Reflected in a Stilly sleeping lake; Fragile pinnacles Of fairy castles; Torn webs of shadows; And Printed ’gainst the sky— The trembling beauty Of an urgent pine.