Maud Casey lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland. She is the author of two novels, The Shape of Things to Come and Genealogy, and a collection of stories, Drastic.
* * * * * * * *
It’s a private, quiet kindness
This past fall was rugged. There was the usual jumble of daily life, and then a long, important relationship ended. Life was supposed to have gone one way and then, as it often does, it went somewhere else entirely. Sadness, anger, guilt, the sensation of teetering on the edge of the earth with the possibility of, at any moment, spinning off into the ether. The usual fare.
As the days became shorter and shorter and shorter still, it seemed as if the whole world was shrinking to one cold, little dot of light. One particularly short day, I was driving along the back road that takes me from home to school and back again. On that particular day, the road seemed especially bleak and soul crushing. And then I looked up and saw the silhouettes of the naked tree branches against the sky. Such intricate varieties of shapes creating complex designs, carving out even more complex designs of negative space—they were mesmerizing. I was transfixed. How had I not noticed their eerie presence on my drive before? How had I not noticed their weird beauty? The pleasure was visceral. There was something deep and irrefutable, unselfconscious, about the naked branches and their patterns of seeming gesticulation. Was it kindness? Maybe not, but it felt like kindness. And here in winter, the naked branches feel like kindness still. Fully aware of the anthropomorphizing involved here, I’d like to suggest it’s a variety of kindness.
I’m not the first to admire a tree, or to experience its power. There’s the Tree of Life in the Egyptian Book of the Dead; there’s the Bodhi tree in Buddhism; there’s Asvatha, the Cosmic tree in the Upanishads; there’s Yggdrassill, the tree in Norse mythology. I could go on. In Native Trees for North American Landscapes, a tree is defined quite loosely, and hilariously, as “a woody plant that when mature you can stand beneath….” I’ve recently turned to this book in order to learn the names of the trees that surround me now in Columbia County in New York: the shagbark maples, the white oak, the paper birch (the Latin name for this—Betulapapyrifera!—I particularly love because it sounds as though you are casting a spell). Every day, I walk among them, grateful for their existence, their good example, those strange, myriad configurations of branches cutting through the sky. They don’t care if I’m there. They go about their business with or without me and there’s something oddly comforting about that.
I should add here that during the fall when I finally looked up and noticed what the trees have been doing for, like, forever, there was also a bounty of human kindness. I mean, truly, an embarrassment of riches that came my way from family and friends. Recently, human kindness has even made the arboreal variety possible. Those shagbark maples, white oaks and Betulapapyriferas, for example, make up the woods that surround the guest cottage where I’ve been staying for a luxurious month due to the kindness of my aunt and uncle whose guest cottage it is.
A couple of weeks ago, I went with one of my very kind friends to an exhibit of the artist Petah Coyne’s work at MASS MoCA. One of the pieces was a sculpture whose centerpiece was a knotty apple tree. The tree—fourteen feet tall and nearly twenty-three feet in all other directions—was dying so the owner of the orchard allowed Coyne to dig it up and cart it off. She and her many assistants covered it with black sand; it looked as though it had been scorched in a magical fire, one that had turned it a glittering, gleaming black. Taxidermied peacocks hung in its branches. It was as mysterious as it sounds, magnificently so. The piece is called Scalapino Nu Shu. Scalpino refers to Leslie Scalpino, the poet, who was a friend of Coyne’s and nu shu refers to the ancient, exclusively female language used by women in the Hunan Province of China. They wrote it on fans and embroidered it on cloth and among women who were sworn sisters it was the language they used in the letters they wrote to one another, which were often buried with the woman who wrote them so she could take them with her into the next life.
There’s something in this exchange of letters that reminds me of the arboreal kindness I experienced for the first time last fall, and continue to experience now that I’m in the habit of following the upward reach of the naked branches. Look up! Look up! It’s a private, quiet kindness, transmitted silently in a secret language I’ve only just learned.
Next week, an essay by Danita Berg.