My yard smells like Christmas, the fresh pine smell of cut trees. But this is not the holiday. The normally comforting and cheery aroma comes from a dying tree. During Hurricane Sandy, an eastern White Pine, around fifty feet tall, toppled into our yard. The roots of the tree rise fifteen feet into the air. The tree stretches fifty feet out of the forest to recline in our yard. During its fall, the tree decapitated a small birch, split a maple, and damaged two smaller pines. One is knocked to the side. The other, nestled in the root system of the fallen tree, loses its balance and topples in the opposite direction. This is a tree collision, a wreck of animal habitat and eastern woods.
This is the force of nature. The tree looked healthy, strong but the ground below was wet. There is a slight slope behind our house and then a rise to our neighbors’ yards. In the spring and summer, this area can be swampy, a wetland of decaying leaves, ferns, mosquitos and toads. In the wind, the shallow roots were not enough to keep the tall tree with its divided trunk in place. Under the shadow of the roots, a small puddle of water and two brownstone boulders remain in the new hollow. Uprooted. This is new to me. Twelve years ago a eucalyptus tree fell from my neighbor’s yard across my own backyard. But that tree had leaned toward the fence, a narrow trunk top heavy with untrimmed branches, looking for sun. The tree trunk cracked. The stump is still there. This is different.
From my office window, the roots look like a small brown hill. The tree a ruined giant. Something in the heart of me identifies with that tree.
In my conversational English class at the library, I introduce some vocabulary words pertaining to the storm. “Uprooted,” I tell the students, “is like the tree in my backyard. The roots came out of the ground. But it can apply to plants you pull from the ground or people who are forced to move.” The students nod. “No,” says the young woman from Tunisia. “You can be uprooted even if you voluntarily leave your home country. Your culture runs deep. Those are your roots. How you do things. How you think.” This is true. I wanted to come here but I feel uprooted. The United States is a large country. Each region, each state has its own customs, laws, traditions. My parents were once New Englanders but I was transplanted at a young age.
I put down roots in California. I grew up in a southern California community surrounded by orange groves and lima bean fields. The lima beans would become strawberry fields. I learned to drive; I hung out with friends on the beach. We wiped the tar off our feet with the same baby oil we used to get tan. When oil leaked off the coast, we cried for the poor bedraggled gulls. California was the blood that flowed beneath my skin. I ran mountain trails, hiked in the desert, and walked along the beaches. I attended the quintessential University of California—Santa Barbara—so that I could bike to class and run on the beach every day. I married my husband in a park in Montecito on a warm September morning, wearing a sleeveless cotton dress and a wreath of baby’s breath. It was the seventies. It was California.
Oh we tried living in another state. We lived for three years in Ohio, attending graduate school and while I loved the change of seasons, I felt like an outsider, not knowing the customs (everyone watches the Ohio State-Michigan game). And to be honest, my neighbors in Centerville found my walking or running on snowy days a bit bizarre. As soon as we both finished school (and our eldest was born), we scampered back to California, to San Francisco. Where else could we live? Eventually we ended up outside of Los Angeles. Everything is in Los Angeles county—art museums, theaters, beaches, restaurants, mountain hikes, California poppy preserves (and massive clogged freeways). Relocation raised its head once in a while—Kansas City, Charlotte, somewhere new and different. We stay.
But this time was different. The interview was in the Fall. The job, the location were both intriguing. We wanted an adventure. I agreed to come. My husband, a native Californian, is flourishing. “I was meant to be here,” he tells me. “It’s so beautiful. I love the trees. I love our house.” It’s a beautiful house but it’s forty-five degrees outside and my eldest daughter tells me it’s ninety-one at her house in Eagle Rock. I long for LA.
I cannot say how my parents feel about returning to New England. They always said that they would never return yet here they are. My dad likes the forest—he points out new things he has noticed all the time. But he didn’t grow up here in CT. He grew up in an industrial city in Massachusetts. He and his sisters visit there one summer day and return with photos. It is not at all like the small town we now live in. But he seems happy here. He now focuses his genealogy studies on ancestors who lived in Connecticut—mostly in Windsor and Wethersfield. As long as I can remember, Mom has taken Yankee magazine and the Haverhill Gazette; she told everyone that she was a Yankee at heart. When I offered to take her to Haverhill, Mom replied that she has no interest in going back to the town where she grew up. Some days I think she tries to pick a fight with me so that I will kick her out and she can return to my sisters in California.
I long for California as the days get colder. Yet I know that I have changed my habitat. Transplanted, I need to put down new roots, deep roots. I volunteer. I talk to neighbors. I go to lectures at the library. I learn the local history. I do not want to topple over like the White Pine.
The backyard has changed. Even though the tree is still there, the light is different. More sunlight streams through the trees, changing the shadows on the house. I walked the yard in this afternoon and find fresh bear scat. Was he rooting in the upturned tree? Squirrels scurry along the trunk, and then up onto my deck, irritating the dogs. The dogs are not sure about the fallen tree. It changes their habitat, brings new challenges. I too have changed. I lift my face to the cold sunlight and develop my roots. I am where I belong.