My Fear of Trees

Today we had a fir tree cut down in the back of our house. Although it had grown so large that it would ultimately prevent us from opening the door to our screened-in porch, I felt guilty requesting that it be removed. 

I grew up in the city with few trees: one scrawny tree in a small plot of dirt encircled by cement in our cramped back yard; another one, which was no taller than my father, in the front of our apartment house and eventually disappeared from my old photos.  

While I didn’t grow up with trees, I respect them. Since a tree fell on our house during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, I feared them. 

Our house in Chapel Hill was nestled among a forest of looming oak trees. From the wall of windows in our living room with a cathedral ceiling, I would watch the oaks sway with the slightest bit of wind. Once I convinced my husband that we should go to a hotel when a hurricane was predicted. 

We eventually moved out of our “house in the forest.” I felt immediate relief that we weren’t threatened by a tree falling with every gust of wind. The lovely pine tree that is no longer at the edge of our home posed no threat. It was just in the wrong place. I hope it will forgive me. 

I did parley a story out of my fear of trees that I originally posted in my Blog on November 4, 2012. 

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The devastation Hurricane Sandy caused this past week on the east coast has reinforced my fear of trees. I have resurrected a column I wrote that appeared in the Chapel Hill News on June 27, 2007.

Living in the Forest with my Fear of Trees

A few years back, when my husband and I lived in DC, a tree slammed on top of a woman’s car as she drove home from work amid a thunderstorm and beheaded her. The woman was my age. I drove down the same street going to work. From then on, I felt in awe of trees. They were powerful and intimidating and untrustworthy.

We lived in subdivision with Bradford Pear trees lining the roads. One spring, as I looked out of my living room window, I watched a Japanese couple taking photos of each other under the white blossoms of the pear tree in front of my townhouse. Why weren’t they down in the tidal basin under the Cherry Blossoms?

Even lovely, modestly tall trees were not to be trusted. The following winter the beautiful Bradford Pear trees were covered with ice from an untimely storm that left us without electricity for five days. Before the ice could melt, the pear trees began to self-destruct. The frosty branches snapped off. One fell on a parked car and totaled it. Other branches lay scatted on sidewalks and roads like so many land mines. The homeowner’s association voted to replace the dangerous Bradford Pear trees the following spring at an additional cost to each homeowner. Before we had to dip into our pockets, my husband and I moved to North Carolina.

We fell in love with a frame home surrounded by large oaks. I failed to remember my tree phobia. But the trees didn’t let me forget their mischievous alter egos.

In 2003, we came home from a wedding in California after Isabel blew in and out, delaying our arrival. As we steered the car up our driveway, a leafy bouquet lay over the top of our home. Luckily, the tree split in two so only half of the heavy eighty-foot oak crashed into the ceiling of our second-floor bedroom.

After we moved our bedroom down to the first floor, the sinister oaks, pines and dogwoods began closing in on me. I worried that one evening, while I sat out on the deck reading a novel, a mild-mannered maple would drop a branch on my head.

I suggested that we look for a condo in the city. Not enamored with the side effects of trees—raking leaves, cleaning gutters, and gathering fallen limbs from the driveway—my husband agreed to explore this. We trekked to each grand opening of a new condo building, and even bought two ten-dollar tickets to attend “Live in Downtown Day.”

Then late one afternoon in early spring, my husband and I sat out on the deck of our home. We sipped Merlot and discussed the merits of leaving our 2,000 square foot home for a cozy condo half that size loaded with a high monthly association fee. The tall oaks blocked the glare of the setting sun while the squirrels scampered up and down their trunks. Two hummingbirds buzzed over our heads, fighting over the rights of the feeder that hung from a branch of a birch tree.

Gradually, I began to realize that trees had a gentle side, too. I won’t deny when the winds pick up and the oaks sway overhead, I wish we had a root cellar to hide in but in the meantime, we’ll stay in our forest surround. And we’ll adopt a cat.

N.B. Seven years later we did move into a townhouse in Raleigh with limited trees. We never did adopt a cat. 

SO WHAT’S NOSTALGIZING?

Nostalgizing is a new word for me. I discovered it in a New York Times article: Tierney, John. What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows. The New York Times, 8 July, 2013.

I needed to re-read the essay for reassurance that feelings of nostalgia I’ve been experiencing with some frequency could very well be positive. (The Oxford dictionary defines nostalgia as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.)

Just the other day, I made the trip from my new home in Raleigh to Chapel Hill where we used to live, about half an hour away, to meet a friend for lunch. We moved three months ago, yet as I walked up the steps to the restaurant, memories flooded my mind. I recalled that I had sat at one of the outside wooden benches with a writer consultant that helped me put together a proposal for a grant I didn’t get. How enthusiastic I had been. And once an acquaintance stopped me in front of the counter with coffee carafes to tell me she enjoyed an essay I had published in the local newspaper—the closest I ever came to having a fan club.

When I left the restaurant, I felt a pull to return to my old home, to be back where the grandkids visited us in that tree-lined cul-de-sac. They graduated from babbling in strollers to riding tricycles, to skate boards and on to bicycles. They made friends with the neighbors’ children. Of course, I see them more often after our move since we live a lot closer but those remembrances doggedly follow me.

Tierney’s essay describes the work of Constantine Sedikides’, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology, a pioneer in the study of nostalgia. Sedikides’ findings show that nostalgia is a way of thinking about the past. “ . . . topics are universal—reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.”

“Nostalgic stories aren’t simple exercises in cheeriness, though. The memories aren’t all happy, and even the joys are mixed with a wistful sense of loss. But on the whole, the positive elements greatly outnumber the negative elements . . .”

Some positive outcomes of nostalgizing include feeling less lonely or depressed, “having stronger feelings of belonging and affiliation,” and becoming “more generous toward others.”

I was reassured when I read that nostalgizing increases with age and “helps us deal with transitions.”

An old friend is coming to visit. Our first houseguest. She is especially flexible, thank goodness, since our new home is in a state of disruption. I look forward to showing her around the neighborhood and the city. But what I am really looking forward to is our trips down memory lane covering 40 years of friendship. We will be nostalgizing together.

Afterthought: I have kept a short essay by Robert Oren Butler since 1994 that moves me every time I read it.

 Nostalgia by Robert Olen Butler

“A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some real or romanticized period or irrecoverable condition in the past . . .”

When the word came into common usage in America in the early nineteenth century, nostalgia, a sickness for home, was considered a form of insanity. This is not a surprising attitude for a new country driven to explore, to expand, to push on to a far sea—even at times conquering and dispossessing others in search of a new place. Now, after nearly two centuries have passed, we have settled into a sort of national middle age and nostalgia has become a cultural virtue. Golden-oldies radio stations and movie remakes, Elvis stamps and classic cars, the moral certitudes of the Gulf War and of Family Values: We have now institutionalized the backward look, the moist eye for where we’ve been.

But for me, nostalgia is this: When I was studying the Vietnamese language in an Army school in Arlington, Virginia, my teacher was a young Vietnamese woman who had come to America for the love of an American soldier. It was 1970 and she had grown up near the ancient city of Hue with the sounds of war thumping and chattering through most of her childhood like the angry ghosts of the tales her mother told. She was happy with her man here, happy with her job, happy with the televisions and the rock ‘n’ roll and the frozen foods and with her Ford Mustang convertible and with the night sky that would flare only with lightning. But when the sunset came and they fired the ceremonial cannon over at Fort Myer, she would weep. The sound of cannon fire made her think about Hue, and she would grow sick with yearning for home.

Self, January 1994.th-1