The Giving Tree
Author Francine Prose never considered herself a tree hugger. Until she found love in her own backyard. Here, she pays tribute to her gorgeous crab apple and a relationship that has weathered many storms.
At the beginning of Break of Day, perhaps the most beautiful book ever written about a mother-daughter relationship, the French novelist Colette quotes a letter that her mother, Sidonie, wrote at the age of 76 in response to an invitation to visit. Sidonie refuses, with regret, because, though she is eager to see her adored daughter, her rare pink cactus is about to bloom, an event that happens only once every four years. “I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.”
I’ve always loved this passage, but I didn’t really understand it when I first read it as a young woman. Only now that I am older, only now when I refuse any invitation, no matter how attractive, to leave home during the precious days when the crab-apple tree in my backyard is in full bloom—only now do I understand Sidonie’s letter.
As a child, I never imagined that I would fall in love with a tree. A husband and children? Maybe. But it never crossed my mind that I would lose my heart to the tree whose gnarled branches I see from my window this very minute.
There were several handsome trees in the yard of the Brooklyn house where I grew up. But the only ones I registered were the fig tree and the rose of Sharon, and that was because they attracted great, terrifying swarms of bees. The other trees grew leaves, turned colors, lost their leaves, and sprouted new ones without my much caring or paying attention.
Later on there were times, I confess, when I used the term tree hugger to describe a sort of person I was very sure I wasn’t.
But now, it seems, I have become one.
The tree was already there, in the middle of the backyard, when my husband and I and our eldest son, then a newborn, moved into our Hudson Valley farmhouse 30 years ago. I have no idea who planted the tree, nor how long it had been growing. Yet from the day we moved in, its presence was impossible to ignore. The tree was simply too beautiful.
It’s true that the tree is at its showiest and most spectacular in the spring, when its delicate white blossoms, veined with a deep pink, first burst into bloom. But I also love those days, just before the flowers appear, when it is surrounded by a kind of aura—a red haze you can see only in certain lights and at certain hours.
It’s with some regret, but also fascination, that I watch the blossoms fade and the tree turn green incrementally, day by day, a yellow green that darkens as the summer progresses.
I have often wondered if the person who planted the tree knew that its position—sheltered by the house on one side and by a forest on the other—would ensure that it stayed leafy long after the other trees in the neighborhood went bare, or that the curled brown autumn leaves, protected from the wind, would cling past the first snowfall that coats the branches with a tracery of white and then drop, revealing a mosaic of dark gleaming bark and furry gray green lichen.
I have also wondered how my husband knew exactly how to shape and prune the tree so that its current form—semi-wild and semi-manicured into a giant ovoid, the shape of a luxuriant, vegetal flying saucer hovering 10 feet off the ground—so perfectly enhances its natural beauty.
Like many great loves, my passion for the tree developed slowly. But it spiked several years ago when we built an addition that turned the rear second story of our home into something that feels like a tree house. I never walk into my office without being shocked, as if for the first time, by how close the tree is. When I sit at my desk, it’s there: my constant companion, my inspiration, my distraction.
Other people have windows overlooking a cityscape, the mountains, or the water, but the crab-apple tree is the “view” we see from our bedroom window, the ever changing vista that my husband and I watch as we drink coffee in bed on the mornings when we have a little extra time. We keep binoculars on our night tables because there is always something to see—for example, the busy life of the birds and the animals that seem to find the tree as interesting as we do.
The sight of a red cardinal alighting among the white blossoms has made me gasp, and even the blue jays (not my favorite bird, typically) look stunning against the background the tree provides. Looking long enough, and hard enough, I’ve seen other varieties: yellow finches, cedar waxwings, purple martins, orioles, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and, on very rare occasions, indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers.
Like the tree, the wildlife population changes with the seasons. I’m happy to let the deer have the hard little green crab apples, which are extremely labor-intensive and not particularly satisfying to make into jelly. (Perhaps I should say that utility is not my tree’s strong point.)
In return, I get to watch the deer families show up several times daily to eat the apples that have fallen or stand on their hind legs to reach the ones on the lower branches. The best time for this is in the fall, when the apples have begun to ferment on the ground, and the fawns eat them and get a little drunk and their playing around the yard takes on a new level of drama.
In the country, I live in nature. But the tree is my connection to nature, the bridge between my window and everything outside. The flowers in my garden bloom and disappear. But as the year goes on the tree keeps changing, renewing and transforming itself—a reminder of the earth’s enduring power. It is the way I read the seasons, and the way that I have started to think about time.
It interests me and comforts me that the tree was there before I arrived and (knock on wood) will change with the seasons after I have gone. That I am a person who knocks on wood for luck when I say anything about which I feel remotely superstitious must reveal a predisposition to believe that something spiritual resides in a tree, a superstition that our crabapple tree has turned into a belief.
My love for this tree has a cost. Sometimes my husband and I think of good reasons to relocate: proximity to the college where I teach and to our family and so forth. But unless I can take the tree with me, I would prefer not to go.
And so I often think of Sidonie, turning down the appealing invitation from Colette’s husband. And of how Colette wrote about that letter from her mother, who died the following year: “Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter.’ ” I’m not asking for that kind of tribute from my family and friends. I just want them to understand, and not to take it personally, when I say that I can’t come to visit when my tree is in bloom.
Francine Prose is the author of many books, including Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife ($25, amazon.com), and, most recently, My New American Life ($26, amazon.com). She divides her time between the Hudson Valley and New York City.